J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all
Mozart’s important compositions, as well as works by his contemporaries. The
journey has begun with an exploration of Mozart’s childhood visit to London
in 1764-65 and a performance of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in
— the first staging since the original production 250 years ago
(although a concert performance was given at the Camden Festival in March 1982
by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Sir Charles Mackerras, and several of the
opera’s arias, most notably the celebrated ‘Cara la dolce fiamma’, have
survived in the repertory).

Classical Opera have presented many fine performances on the concert
platform of repertory from the late-eighteenth century and have made a number
of excellent recordings of lesser-known works — among them Mozart’s Die
Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots
and Apollo and Hyacinth, and
Arne’s Artaxerxes. But, it is good to see the company putting opera
where it truly belongs, on the stage, and even better to have the opportunity
to see and hear a work by a composer whose music is seldom performed today but
who was known during his day throughout Europe as the ‘London Bach’.

Invited to write two operas for the King’s Theatre Haymarket, J. S.
Bach’s eleventh surviving son arrived in the city in 1762 as a 26-year-old
and stayed for the rest of his life. Two years later, the 9-year-old Mozart
came to London with his family for a visit that was to last for 15 months.
Adriano in Siria was presented during the 1764-65 season. Classical
Opera’s founder, Ian Page argues that Mozart almost certainly attended at
least one performance of this work and held the opera and its composer in high
regard. London audiences were less enthusiastic though, and after seven
performances it was withdrawn and never revived. In a recent Guardian
article, Page cites an amusing letter written by an ‘anonymous footman’ at
the King’s Theatre to The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, which
records that ‘the extraordinary merit of Mr Bach’s Adriano in
could not rescue it from the vengeance of these destroyers; it was
doomed to oblivion as soon as it was presented: and why? Because forsooth Mr
Bach did not breathe Italian air as soon as he was born. All but the Italians
acknowledged the beauties of Mr Bach’s operas; and none but the Italians
could have been capable of smothering so elegant a production’.
‘Extraordinary merit’ is indeed apt praise, based on this performance in
the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music.

First set by Antonio Caldara in 1732, Pietro Metastasio’s libretto
subsequently served more than 60 composers. It presents a fictional account
involving Emperor Hadrian and King Osroes I of Parthia, during the former’s
time as ruler of Syria. Adriano is a flawed figure: infatuated with one of his
prisoners — Emirena, the Parthian princess who loves Farnaspe — he rejects
his own betrothed, Sabina (who is secretly admired by Aquilio). The enraged
King Osroa attempts to kill Adriano, first by burning down the citadel, then by
disguising himself as a Roman soldier and stabbing him; both efforts are
unsuccessful and when Farnaspe, who is suspected of arson, is discovered by
Adriano fleeing with Emirena and holding Osroa’s sword, all three find
themselves back in prison. The Parthians suffer yet more wretchedness at the
hands of the barbarous Emperor, but eventually, Adriano’s better instincts
surface — perhaps he is inspired by the nobler example set by his citizens,
who demonstrate loyalty and integrity in adversity. In a hasty lieto
, Osroa is spared death and restored to the throne, Aquilio is
forgiven, and the pairs of lovers suitably matched up. (Perhaps the political
dimensions of such a tale, probably designed by Metastasio to please the
absolutist authorities in contemporary European city states, did not go down
well in late-eighteenth-century London?)

The structure follows the typical opera seria pattern of three acts
built from scenes of recitative (some of which was abbreviated in this
performance) followed by a solo exit aria, and director Thomas Guthrie has had
to work hard to overcome the resulting static quality — with some success.
Most imaginative are the transformations from exterior to interior which are
effected during the long da capo arias, often triggered by the change
of mood in an aria’s contrasting middle section. Particularly striking was
the descent of the black backdrop during Osroa’s first aria, in which he
laments his daughter’s imprisonment and swears defiance and vengeance; the
transmutation from sky-blue expanse to dark inner chamber was suggestive of the
shadows in Osroa’s heart and made his aria intimate and affecting, despite
his wild fury. Less successful were the attempts to indicate the unfolding
‘action’ as the soloists performed their arias at the front or side of the
stage. Against a sky streaked with fiery red, at the rear of the stage Romans
raced back and forth to save the burning citadel; Adriano’s henchmen stomped
about seeking rebellious Parthians; in the more serene moments, actors swooped
and fluttered paper birds. But, such to-ing and fro-ing distracted from the
affekts being articulated by the protagonists at these moments, as if
the narrative conveyed through the recitative was being noisily shoe-horned
into the arias themselves. Moreover, while there was a sensible concern to show
the brutality of Adriano and his regime, the rough-treatment dispensed by the
Roman soldiers was often at odds with the exquisite grace of the score.

Rhys Jarman’s designs were simple and beautiful. A few plinths and
costumes — the latter reminiscent of the luxurious decadence of Lawrence
Alma-Tadema’s depictions of the Roman Empire — were all that were needed to
establish the epoch. Lighting designer Katharine Williams employed the
expansive back-drop as a canvas — bare expect for a few suggestive
silhouettes of columns and topiary — on which to unfold a gradually
metamorphosing palette (also evocative of Alma-Tadema) to match the sung

The cast were uniformly strong. As Adriano, mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier was
appropriately restless and headstrong. Though a little uncertain in her opening
aria, she gained in confidence and the lovely richness of her tone gave stature
to the Emperor despite his fickle caprices, while in higher registers her voice
shone beautifully. The other castrato role, Farnaspe, was taken by soprano
Erica Eloff (given Page’s commitment to period performance, why no
countertenors?). Eloff struggled with the virtuosity of her first aria,
‘Disperato in mar turbato’; in the higher-lying runs her voice seemed
unsupported. But, there is no doubting the exquisite beauty of her tone and in
the expressive phrasing of ‘Cara la dolce fiamma’ Eloff demonstrated
considerable musicality and sensitive appreciation of the style. It was a
highlight of the evening, alongside Emirena’s ‘Deh lascia, o ciel
pietoso’. In the latter role, soprano Ellie Laugharne was also challenged by
some of the more taxing coloratura but her singing persuasively communicated
character and feeling. As Sabina, Filipa van Eck sang accurately and
vivaciously but her resonant, burnished soprano was rather odds with the others
voices and with the eighteenth-century aesthetic.

Stuart Jackson’s Osroa was a commanding presence; although not possessing
a huge voice, Jackson used his alluring tenor, and the text, to convey the
King’s integrity in his two arias. Tenor Nick Pritchard performed Aquilio’s
Act 3 aria, in which he admires the manipulative cunning of his efforts to win
Sabina, which considerable confidence and skill. It was worth waiting for.

The Orchestra of Classical Opera, under Page’s baton, were stylish and
charismatic. In particular, Page brought to the fore Bach’s inventive and
captivating writing for the woodwind; there were some lovely clarinet solos and
one could almost imagine the excitement of the young Mozart upon hearing the
wonderfully warm blend of groupings of clarinets, horns and bassoons.

Page suggests that J. C. Bach was arguably the biggest influence on the
young Mozart’s burgeoning compositional voice. Indeed, Mozart travelled to
Paris in 1778 where he again encountered Bach and attended a performance of
Bach’s opera, Amadis de Gaul. Mozart wrote to his father: ‘Mr.
Bach from London has been here for the last fortnight. … You can easily
imagine his delight and mine at meeting again; perhaps his delight may not have
been quite as sincere as mine —but one must admit that he is an honorable man
and willing to do justice to others. I love him (as you know) and respect him
with all my heart; and as for him, there is no doubt but that he has praised me
warmly, not only to my face, but to others, also, and in all seriousness —
not in the exaggerated manner which some affect.’ (27 August 1778)

Whatever the degree of his influence upon the young Mozart, J. C. Bach —
described by one London contemporary as a ‘second Handel’ — contributed
many individual numbers for inclusion in operas by other composers and produced
14 operas of his own. It would be good to hear more of them.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Adriano — Rowan Hellier, Osroa — Stuart Jackson, Emirena —
Ellie Laugharne, Fasnaspe — Erica Eloff, Aquilio — Nick Pritchard, Sabina
— Filipa van Eck, Actors — Leiran Gibson, Victoria Haynes, Lauren Okadigbo
(Sabina’s lady-in-waiting), Sandro Piccirilli, Daniel Swan (Adriano’s
attendant), Lotte Tickner (Emirena’s lady-in-waiting); Conductor — Ian
Page, Director — Thomas Guthrie, Designer — Rhys Jarman, Lighting —
Katharine Williams, The Orchestra of Classical Opera. Britten Theatre, Royal
College of Music, London, Tuesday 14 th April 2015.

image_description=Rowan Hellier [Photo by andystaplesphotography.com courtesy of Rayfield Allied]
product_title=J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Rowan Hellier [Photo by andystaplesphotography.com courtesy of Rayfield Allied]