Francesco Bartolomeo Conti: L’Issipile

The dramma per musica was premiered at
the Imperial Court Theatre in Vienna during the Carnival of 1732, but was not a
great success, and was granted only three performances; perhaps, if the cast of
Baroque specialists and instrumentalists presenting the opera at the Wigmore
Hall on Wednesday evening had been on duty on 7th February 1732, the
story might have been different … for this outstanding and utterly absorbing
performance by La Nuova Musica and a stellar set of soloists made for
a thrilling musical evening.

Metastasio’s opera seria combines two Classical myths: that of
Jason and the Argonauts and the tale of the rebellion by the women of Lemnos.
Perhaps the violent nature of the subject — the vengeful slaughter of the men
of Lemnos — was off-putting for early-eighteenth-century audiences and the
Viennese court.

The action unfolds on the island of Lemnos, in the Aegean Sea. The soldiers
of Lemnos have won their battle on the neighbouring island, Thrace, but
attracted by the wealth and beauty of their enemy’s women, they have delayed
their return home. Eventually their King, Thoas, eager to attend the wedding of
his daughter, Issipile, to Giasone (Jason), convinces them to wend their way
homeward; but, their irate, vengeful wives have hatched a terrible plot to kill
their husbands upon their arrival, using the distractions of the festival of
Bacchus to mask their vicious intent. Issipile tries to warn her father; she
hides him and tells the other women that he has already been killed. This
action, however, causes her to be rejected twice: first, by Jason who condemns
this act of patricide, and then by the Lemnos women, when they discover the

Eurynome, the leader of the women, is especially angered, as her son,
Learchus, has previously been spurned by Issipile and forced to flee from
Lemnos following a failed attempt to abduct her; it is rumoured that in
desperation he has killed himself in exile. In fact, he has become a pirate
and, hearing of Jason’s return, Learchus travels to Lemnos and hides in the
palace, planning a second kidnap attempt. However, Issipile’s goodness wins
through in the end: the virtuous are saved, the evil punished, the lovers
married and Lemnos restored to peace.

An inconsequential tale, but one which inspired Conti to compose substantial
arias of great power and passion, interspersed within lengthy, varied
recitatives, many of which are accompagnato. High voices dominate and
the six roles form effective pairs, the female roles being particularly
strongly characterised.

Soprano Lucy Crowe infused Issipile’s virtuosic arias with both intensity
and delicacy — often, paradoxically, simultaneously — capturing both the
tenderness of her filial devotion and the ache of marital passion. The long
aria which closes the first act exemplified the way that Crowe employed both
penetration and sweetness — top Cs floated effortlessly, the vocal acrobatics
were effortlessly agile — to portray the self-doubt which tinges the
heroine’s virtue; the vocal delights were enhanced by striking variations of
tempo, stirring harmonies and inventive motifs from the violins.

Crowe was perfectly complemented by the sentimental warmth of tone of
soprano Rebecca Bottone, as Rodope. The lyricism and clarity of Bottone’s
recitatives was deeply communicative. The Act 1 aria, in which Issipile’s
confidante gives the villainous Learchus a lesson in moral philosophy, combined
seriousness of intent with a persuasively seductive, luxurious tone. The
sequential interplay between voice and strings, and the beautiful, rich
earnestness of the soprano’s lower register in the da capo repeat,
was profoundly moving; surely such musical reflections and exhortations would
deflect a jealous blackguard from his evil ways…

Learchus is an anti-hero of Iago-like proportions. His intrigues and
machinations were superbly rendered by countertenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetti; his
relentless evil — conveyed by stunning vocal leaps from crystalline heights
to resonant depths — was riveting, while his conceited pouting and strutting,
embellished with tightly pulsating trills, entertained. The final scene in
which Learchus, mid-way through his assassination-abduction mission, recognises
his own erroneousness and imprudence and stabs himself in self-chastising
remorse, was gripping. (Ferri-Benedetti is clearly the man to go to if you want
to learn about Conti: currently completing a doctoral thesis on Metastasian
heroines, the countertenor both prepared the edition of the score and provided
the English translation of the libretto which was projected onto the wall of
the Wigmore Hall cupola.)

And, what a treat for the audience to have two countertenors of such star
quality to beguile them. The devil may have all the best tunes, but Lawrence
Zazzo, as Giasone, equalled Ferri-Benedetti in the posing and strutting
department. Zazzo’s recitatives were particularly fluent and flexible, and he
used elegance and graceful evenness of phrase to convey Giasone’s essential
honesty and righteousness.

John Mark Ainsley’s unfailingly beautiful, well-centred tone embodied the
dignity and fair-mindedness of Thoas, as well as the sincerity and depth of his
love for his daughter. His life may have been in danger, but Thoas never
wavered, exuding calm composure and confident nobility throughout. Mark Ainsley
encompassed the extraordinarily wide range with ease; the melodic arcs were
wonderful spun, underpinned in Thoas’s second aria by dense but delicate
contrapuntal lines of the strings, the minor tonality adding to the poignancy.

Diana Montague’s resentful Eurynome equalled Thoas in dramatic stature and
musical characterisation; her arias were characterised by excellent diction and
vocal refinement combined with rhetorical impact. The fury of her Act 1 aria,
emphasised by the agitated accompaniment, gave way to more tragic sensibilities
at the start of Act 2, guiding the audience to recognise Eurynome’s
misfortune as well as her bitterness.

The fourteen instrumentalists of La Nuova Musica, led from the
harpsichord by founder and director David Bates, produced playing of fleetness,
vivacity and charm. The Sinfonia epitomised the perfectly synchronised
panache of the strings’ Italianate lines, and the striking contrasts of
dynamics suggested the surprising twists and turns of the drama to follow. In
the complex arias, oboe (Leo Duarte) and bassoon (Rebecca Hammond) added colour
to the tutti sections; the more contrapuntal accompaniments were
incisively articulated. Conti’s recitative is fast-moving, Metastasio’s
lines often shared between characters; Bates unfailingly created forward motion
and excitement in these exchanges, which the soloists delivered with
naturalness and spontaneity. Sudden harmonic swerves and interruptions were
emphasised but never mannered.

Concert performance this may have been, but the drama was transfixing. The
three hours whizzed by. One longs for a recording.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

La Nuova Musica. David Bates, director; Lucy Crowe, soprano
(Issipile); John Mark Ainsley, tenor (Thoas), Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor
(Giasone); Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, countertenor (Learchus); Diana Montague,
mezzo-soprano (Eurynome); Rebecca Bottone, soprano (Rodope). Wigmore Hall,
London, 22nd January 2014.

image_description=Lucy Crowe [Photo © Harmonia Mundi USA Marco Borgreve]
product_title=Francesco Bartolomeo Conti: L’Issipile
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo © Harmonia Mundi USA Marco Borgreve]