Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) was a renowned opera composer of the eighteenth century. As the Kapellmeister at the Dresden court from 1731 to 1763, he composed a large number of Italian operas and his fame spread all over Europe. His wife, the equally famous mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni (who also sang in Handel’s operas in London), starred in many of his operas. However Hasse’s operas, unlike Handel’s, have yet to see a revival. It is fitting that the Dresden Semperoper are embracing their regional musical heritage and have began to perform his operas. In 2005, they produced his opera seria Cleofide, and now this season they have presented his intermezzo Il Tutore.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

An “intermezzo” is a short comic opera in two or three scenes that was performed in between the acts of an opera seria in the eighteenth century. The most famous work in the genre is Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, which became extremely popular and gained an independent status, but most of these works have long been forgotten. Hasse composed eight intermezzi, and Il tutore was originally composed in 1730 and performed in Naples with his opera seria Ezio. It was later revived in Dresden in 1738.

One of the problems about the intermezzo is that it is too short to perform on its own, so for this production the director Manfred Weiss decided to expand it and to give a modern twist to the rather old-fashioned story by inserting a short Ionesco play “The Motor Show” in between the intermezzo. Lucilla (Nadja Mchantaf), the orphan girl, is in love with the young Claudio (a mute role played by the actor Tom Quaas), but her guardian Pandolfo (Matthias Hennenberg) keeps her locked away and wants to marry her himself (if that sounds familiar, it's probably because you're thinking of The Barber in Seville).

As a whole, it was a highly entertaining show, although in the end it was so far removed from Hasse’s original that it would be unfair to make a judgement on Hasse’s music from this work alone. Roughly speaking, his late Baroque style is half way between Handel and Haydn, and is close to that of Pergolesi. The arias and duets were elegant and concise, and the lyric soprano Nadja Mchantaf sang her coloratura arias with agility and panache. The baritone Matthias Hennenberg played the buffo role with relish and was also excellent as the man at the car showroom in Ionesco's play The Motor Show. This was originally written for radio, and is about a man who goes into a car showroom and comes out buying the saleslady instead. By inserting this play, the production seemed to suggest there was more to Pandolfo and Lucilla’s relationship.

The beautiful set – a small model of the Semperoper itself viewed from behind – was placed on the raised orchestra pit in front of the curtain. Furthermore, as we entered we found the orchestra rehearsing, directed from the harpsichord by the imaginative Johann Wulff-Woesten, which gave the whole production an informal “behind the scenes” feel. The audience seemed to be a healthy mix of opera fans, tourists, families and children (I was very impressed that the Semperoper provides special cushions for small children!) and I think it gave a good taster for people less familiar with opera: operatic singing, a play, a rehearsal, period costumes and elegant music from the era of Dresden’s baroque splendour all in an hour!