Classical Opera's La canterina (The Songstress) was something of a Haydn sandwich. Topped by Haydn's Symphony no. 34 in D minor, tailed by his short opera La canterina, and filled with four arias from Josef Mysliveček's Semiramide, it was more cheese-and-tomato than smoked salmon. This is Classical Opera's era and (along with Mozart) relatively staple repertoire, and hats off to them for showcasing it and doing so impressively, but some of this repertoire tends to fizzle and fade by the time you reached the tube home afterwards. As Ian Page, conductor and founder of Classical Opera, says in the programme, this is 'ground-breaking' music from 1766, 250 years ago, so you're bound to ask why it hasn't been aired more often.

Susanna Hurrell © Eloise Campbell
Susanna Hurrell
© Eloise Campbell

Haydn's Symphony no. 34 begins with a 'church-sonata' style Adagio, searingly beautiful and very very slow. It's a dangerous way to start a concert on a warm September evening, despite ravishing playing from the strings with every note articulated and considered. The second movement put paid to the snooze with crackling energy, the strings shimmering through the coloratura with Handelian grace. The last two sections prove Haydn to be a jack-of-all-trades, switching to D major yet maintaining the urgency.

The four arias from Mysliveček's Semiramide are a mixed bag musically. Robert Murray as Ircano, a wild, unruly Scythian prince and possible suitor for Tamiri, had a nervy start, swallowing his phrases, but rallied to give us some beautiful singing punctuated with stratospheric notes, evidently his forte (I'd love to hear his Rossini). There also seemed to be balance problems and at times Murray battled against the orchestra. Tamiri, meantime, has chosen Scitalce, who rejects her and the flame-haired Kitty Whately furiously delivered as the woman scorned. Semiramide is delighted Scitalce has rejected Tamiri, hoping for him herself, and Rachel Kelly, sparkling in scarlet, is certainly your 'man' for this, a gorgeous rich mezzo with bright top notes. In the end the winner of Tamiri’s hand is Mirteo, the deliciously dark-toned soprano Susanna Hurrell. So, a typical opera plot without the music to match.

Haydn’s La canterina is opera at its dottiest; two naughty ladies taking advantage of two rich men. It was Haydn’s first opera and a comedy. The comedy in this case, though, was dislodged by the doggerel surtitles and a stab at semi-staging it – not easy on a postage stamp. Rachel Kelly’s Apollina opens the action with aplomb, singing an aria about make-up – so far so good. She is joined by her friend Gasparina (Susanna Hurrell) and then comes a knock at the door. They assume it is their landlord, the wealthy Don Pelagio, but it turns out to be Don Ettore (Kitty Whately).  They refuse him entry until he reveals a diamond bracelet for Gasparina. Lo and behold, Don Pelagio turns up, so they have to pretend Ettore is a merchant. Don Pelagio is also Gasparina's singing teacher and he proceeds to give her a 'lesson' during which he can’t keep his hands off her. It’s a fairly thankless aria, with minimal singing, but which is supposedly funny. Overcome by love and lust, Don Pelagio proposes to Gasparina, but overhears her talking to Don Ettore, loses control and evicts her and friend. Gasparina 'faints', saying the only way she can be revived is by the smell of money or jewels. All is forgiven as money is wiggled under Gasparina's nose, the women are happily reinstated into the house and the men accept the mysteries of women with a joyful quartet. 

This was indisputably an enjoyable evening chiefly because of Page and his classy band and singers. Mysliveček's music was admired by Mozart, and although Haydn is one of the great composers, he intended his operas to provide cheerful undemanding entertainment. This was certainly achieved.