Had you been travelling, in the mid 18th century, around the crowned courts of middle Europe, there would have been little debate as to who was the most celebrated opera composer and ensemble: Johann Adolph Hasse and his company at the Saxon court of Dresden. Tastes changed, of course, and baroque opera seria died out, and Hasse has not formed part of its recent revival, focused as it is on the works of Handel and Rameau. So it was with considerable interest that I went along to the Grosvenor Chapel in London’s Mayfair to hear Ensemble Serse’s perform Hasse’s 1742 Lucio Papirio Dittatore, a work that won him boundless admiration from that most musically talented of monarchs, Frederick the Great.

Ensemble Serse © Christopher Silvester
Ensemble Serse
© Christopher Silvester

Opera seria alternates “dry” recitative with da capo arias. The conventional wisdom, as expressed by Christian Curnyn in ENO’s programme notes for Handel’s Julius Caesar, is that modern audiences can’t cope with a full length performance and that the recitative must be cut in order to preserve the arias. Ensemble Serse weren’t interested in such a compromise: they reconstructed the score and libretto from records at the Dresden court and performed it in full - around four and a quarter hours of music in total.

Contrary to Curnyn’s view, I hugely enjoyed the recitatives. Set in pre-empire Rome, Lucio Papirio describes the conflict between the dictator Lucio and his disobedient but heroic son-in-law Quinto Fabio. As the opera starts, Lucio, concerned by unfavourable auspices, has returned to Rome from a battlefield to seek advice from the temple, leaving Fabio in charge with strict orders not to engage with the enemy. News soon arrives that Fabio has not only engaged with the enemy Samnites but has utterly destroyed them; when he returns to Rome in triumph, Lucio is furious, and things get worse from there. Apostolo Zeno’s taut libretto is focused on the psychology surrounding a dictator who is forced to deal with a complicated mix of his own emotions: personal pride, civic duty, family love, envy and plain old anger. It makes a noticeable contrast to the love-obsessed libretti of the better known Pietro Metastasio, many of which were also set by Hasse. This being a fully lit concert performance, Ensemble Serse made available full libretti, so I was able to follow the full text in Italian and English (as did most of the audience). The twists in the ending get a little convoluted, but for the most part, I found the narrative compelling and the singers well in tune with their characters. The instrumentalists were superb throughout, playing with vigour and maintaining the pulse and impetus of the music throughout a long performance.

I was less convinced by many of the arias. The singer of a da capo aria must combine musical talents with an ability to project the emotions of the character they are singing. For a perfect performance, they must then show contrasting emotions in the middle section, wow us with their virtuosity in the cadenza (if there is one) then come back with reinvigorated power in the repeat - an A/B/A+ structure rather than just A/B/A. It’s a big ask, and in his day, Hasse had access to the top singers in the world. Last night’s soloists had plenty of musical talent - there was little to fault technically - but to my ears, no-one really brought together all the required elements into a complete package. For most of the arias, I enjoyed the opening section and maintained interest in the B section, but my attention then wandered in the repeats, which seemed to add little. The cadenzas also did little for me: the programme notes explained that Ensemble Serse were reproducing history in that singers of the day would frequently veer off and sing whatever they wanted in order to show off their virtuosity, to the delight of audiences and the discomfiture of composers. With every aria being given a cadenza, however well executed, my sympathies lay with the composers.

These criticisms notwithstanding, there was plenty of fine singing. Christopher Jacklin did the best job of rendering his character: the low-born tribune Servilio who eventually displays more nobility than any of the patricians that he has to deal with (for a court opera, Lucio Papirio has a libretto which is surprisingly democratically-inclined). Roderick Morris excelled in his portrayal of Fabio’s sister Rutilia, although I was never comfortable with the casting: Morris’s voice may be high but it’s distinctly masculine, which I found off-putting in his love scenes with the warrior Cominio, sung by Catherine Pope in a quite beautiful but very feminine soprano. Calvin Wells had tons of authority as Fabio, but a nasty sharp edge to his voice when forcing high notes. The female lead role, Papiria, was sung by Elisabeth Fleming, who was fantastic musically - sweet-toned, flexible, elegant - but displayed insufficient variation in emotion: I didn’t hear enough difference in voice between extremely different emotions (“My sweet husband is victorious, yet my heart does not rest,” “You are my dearest love,” or “Take then the name of tyrant”). I felt much the same about Benjamin Williams in the title role: this was a very attractive voice which performed amazing feats of dexterity, but which didn't really follow the dictator's severe mood swings - in the arias, that is, the recitatives having been excellent from all.

In summary, then, this was a performance which was thoroughly fascinating from a history-of-opera point of view, and with many good elements from a musical one. Lucio Papirio is labelled a dramma per musica; to my surprise, I was considerably more taken by the drama than the music - but then early opera is full of surprises.