This was not strictly a performance of Hasse’s opera Artaserse. It should more accurately have been billed as Hasse’s Wilhelmine von Bayreuth (pasticcio), or even perhaps Anja Silja channels Wilhelmine von Bayreuth as well as herself (pasticcio). For those unaware, Anja Silja is a celebrated German soprano who has performed in an extensive repertoire including Wagner, often at Bayreuth in the Wagner Theatre, and who had a relationship with Wieland Wagner. She is now 78 but not as yet retired. Less well known – outside Germany anyway – Wilhelmine von Bayreuth, the Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, was a sister of Frederick the Great and a granddaughter of George I of England. She had an eventful life (1709-1758), particularly as a pawn in an aristocratic marriage game, but managed to become a respected musician and composer. Not quite forgotten, her opera Argenore was performed in 2002 in a Bayreuth Baroque festival.

Anja Silja (Wilhelmine von Bayreuth), Pauline Rinvet (Sister) and Kathrin Zukowsk (Brother)
© Jean-Marc Turmes

When she married Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, they established a Germanic Versailles at Bayreuth, with a splendid rococo Margravial opera house. This theatre has for the last six years been undergoing 29 million euros’ worth of renovation. The current entertainment known as “Hasse Artaserse” inaugurated its recent re-opening, as Hasse’s actual opera of that name, and Ezio, had been performed at the original opening in 1748. It has been transplanted to its rococo contemporary Cuvilliés-Theatre in Munich, attending which was a delight in itself.

Tianji Lin (Intrigant)
© Jean-Marc Turmes

The work comprises Silja in a magnificent red 18th-century gown reading letters written by Wilhelmine and cruising majestically around the stage, strewing the letters behind her as she finishes them. Meanwhile, singers enact vocally and dramatically the incidents described, using chunks of recitative, accompagnata and arias from Hasse’s Artaserse and Ezio, and one large recitative slab and aria from the Margravine’s Argenore. The characters comprised Sister, Brother, Mother, Father and “intrigant”, a somewhat variable figure. 

Natalya Boeva (Mother) and Eric Ander (Father)
© Jean-Marc Turmes

At first, all the costuming was strictly 18th century, but I guess stage directors in Germany (Hungarian Balázs Kovalik in this case) can’t help themselves really, and before long items of modern dress began to appear. Silja however continued to sail through all regardless in her red dress, reading and reading. After the interval, however, she appeared wearing a dog’s head, and so too gradually did the rest of the cast. A little research shows that Wilhelmine was a dog lover – no other explanation offers itself.

The stage was dominated by a towering wooden structure, seen side-on at first. It tended to be surrounded Kabuki-style by black-clad stage hands. Further into the plot, it turned its face to the audience, revealing itself to be a rococo theatre. Various vignettes, many of which were quite obscure in their meaning to me, were enacted by the principals dressed in exotic orientalising garments. After a short while, I found it all quite hard to follow in any narrative sense, and decided the best option was just to enjoy it as a colourful Hasse concert. Musically, it wasn’t bad at all.

Kathrin Zukowski (Brother) and Natalya Boeva (Mother)
© Jean-Marc Turmes

The Hofkapelle München, on historical instruments, was conducted by Michael Hofstetter, and they were a constant source of satisfaction, playing with warm consistency and with some notable contributions from the flutes. The singers were all students, except Eric Ander who was described as a graduate (and Silja of course). The first soprano was Pauline Rinvet playing the Sister, with rather light voice but sparkly high notes. Her Brother was sung by another soprano, Kathrin Zukowski, who, for me, was the most rewarding of the soloists. She sang with very nice tone, in good Baroque style with dramatic expressiveness, and her rendition of “Parto qual pastorello” (written for Farinelli, after all) was warmly received. Mezzo Natalya Boeva sang the Mother with smooth assurance, good range and ringing notes. Bass Ander played the Father with nice resonant tone and good Italian diction, but his coloratura could do with some work. The Intrigant was tenor Tianji Lin who appeared first in drag and who has a good penetrating and flexible voice. He entertained when he appeared, even when it was not clear what his actual function in the story was. Silja herself concluded the evening with a substantial accompagnato from Artaserse and a fragment of recitative from Argenore to do with living happily and peacefully in Elysium. She can certainly still project her voice with considerable power.