Metastasio’s Adriano in Siria (Hadrian in Syria) was a hugely popular opera libretto in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In Classical Opera’s programme booklet for their production of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in Siria, they have provided a list of all the composers who have set this libretto, beginning with Caldara in 1732 to Mercadante in 1828 (64 in total and J.C.Bach is no. 42 on the list!). What this tells us is that the audience at the time would have been familiar with this libretto and even with some previous settings, and it was the composer’s task to bring something new and individual but based on a set of conventions. This was exactly what J.C. Bach did in his Adriano in Siria, and when one views the work on its own terms rather than from a 21st century perspective, one can say he certainly did an admirable job.

This staged production of J.C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria (its first modern staging in UK) forms a part of Ian Page and Classical Opera’s exploration of Mozart in London in 1765, 250 years ago. The opera was first performed in January 1765 when the nine-year-old Mozart was in London and since he was good friends with the older composer, he must have seen it and have been hugely influenced by it. In fact, if we were told this was an early Mozart opera, most of us would believe it and probably appreciated it more!

The story is set in 117 AD in Antioch (Ancient Syria), where the Roman Emperor Adriano (Hadrian) has just gained victory against King Osroa of the Parthians. However, Adriano falls in love with the king’s daughter Emirena, in spite of being betrothed to a Roman princess Sabina, who comes looking for him. As often in these operas, Emirena is put in a difficult position because she loves another – Parthian prince Farnaspe – and the plot is further complicated by Aquilio, a Roman tribune who loves Sabina. In the end, Hadrian overcomes his passion and magnanimously blesses the faithful lovers Emirena and Farnaspe.

J.C. Bach’s music for this opera is mostly blissfully beautiful with a classical sensibility. He was certainly a composer of melodic invention – all the more so because every one of the two dozen or so arias were composed in the major key (and mostly in duple/quadruple metre in moderate tempo), whatever the character’s sentiment – in love, in despair or in anger. I am not familiar enough with J.C. Bach’s other operas to judge whether this is characteristic of all his operas, or more a characteristic of the operas of the time, but I am inclined to think it was the compositional style of the early classical era and that was what was in vogue. Anyhow, once I got used to this, I could enjoy and immerse myself in the beautifully crafted arias.

The singing was generally high standard – Ian Page can always be trusted to pick and nurture young and upcoming singers in his projects. Although one would expect Adriano (finely sung by mezzo Rowan Hellier) to be the leading role, curiously he doesn’t have the best music. Rather, the central characters are Farnaspe, here sung by elegant soprano Erica Eloff (whom I admired previously in Vivaldi’s Griselda), and Emirena sung by sweet-toned and agile soprano Ellie Laugharne. Farnaspe’s celebrated aria “Cara la dolce fiamma” and Emirena’s virtuosic “Non è la mia costanza” (both in Act II) were some of the vocal highlights. Soprano Filipa van Eck as the noble Sabina displayed great stage presence and was technically brilliant, although I found her a little shrill at the top in the intimate theatre. Tenor Stuart Jackson as King Osroa was impressive with a strong top register, and tenor Nick Pritchard sang eloquently as the scheming Aquilio. The recitatives were clear and lively, with imaginative continuo playing by harpsichordist Stephen Devine.

Thomas Guthrie’s staging was traditional and in (loosely) period costume, which can be helpful when one is totally unfamiliar with the opera. I liked the way he presented the back-story and the characters in mime during the overture with a brief synopsis on the screen. He told the story clearly and coherently with minimal props (trees, birds, classical column etc) and effective use of lighting. Ian Page conducted efficiently, bringing out the best from the singers and never pushing them. The orchestra was led by Matthew Truscott and the strings were articulate and versatile, while the clarinets, bassoons and horns added a warm and pastoral sonority. The performance certainly gave context to Mozart’s early influences, but I also found plenty in the music to appreciate J.C. Bach’s talents on its own terms.