Last Saturday in the Concertgebouw was a revival in many ways. For a start, it was the first Saturday matinée performed for a wider public since Dutch theatres and concert halls went dark again in the wake of the omicron wave. This reopening still caused a giant puzzle for the organisation of Zaterdag Matinee which had to downsize the audience considerably since the current rules only allow a maximum of 466 visitors in the 2000-seater Great Hall. The lucky few who were able to keep their tickets were treated to something of a resurrection – the first modern performance of Geminiano Giacomelli’s opera La Merope.

Andrea Marcon
© Daniele Caminiti

The first performance of this opera must have been quite the grand happening during the Venice Carnival season of 1734. It boasted double star power by bringing together on stage the two most celebrated castrati singers of the time: Farinelli and Cafarelli. This didn’t prevent Merope from falling into complete oblivion, like many Italian operas of the Neapolitan school after Gluck’s reformation. The only aria from Merope that modern audiences might be familiar with is “Sposa, non mi conosci” sung by the character Epitide, which has recently appeared in recordings by Baroque music royalty of the likes of Cecilia Bartoli and Max Emanuel Cenčić. Even then, most will only know this aria as Vivaldi’s  “Sposa son disprezzata”, as the Red Priest loved Giacomelli’s aria so much that he borrowed it for his pasticcio Bajazet.  

The word “resurrection” is hardly an exaggeration for this project which is the latest offspring of a collaboration going back nearly 15 years between conductor Andrea Marcon and the Zaterdag Matinee. As there was no modern edition of the score of La Merope, one had to be put together from historical manuscripts. I would wager that the final result presented by Marcon with his period ensemble La Cetra and an outstanding line-up of vocal virtuosi will be a game-changer for an opera forgotten for nearly three centuries. Merope’s music surely deserves its place amongst the growing number of works by Hasse, Scarlatti and Vivaldi that have recently graced concert halls and the recorded discography. On Saturday, the Amsterdam public was wowed by a succession of finely crafted arias, some truly exquisite, orchestrated with great refinement. From behind one of the two harpsichords, Marcon – visibly energised – drew a rich tonal palette from the forces of La Cetra, boasting 13 strings, five woodwinds, four brass and a theorbo. The latter joined the harpsichords to expertly punctuate the recitatives.

Magdalena Kožená
© Julia Wesely

The libretto by Apostolo Zeno, a prominent Italian librettist before Metastasio, is based on an ancient Greek myth: Merope, Queen of Messenia, is being pressured to wed the tyrant Polifonte ten years after he had her husband, King Cresfonte, and two of her sons murdered in order to usurp the throne. Her youngest son, Epitide, escaped the massacre and returns incognito to avenge his father and restore his mother’s honour. This wouldn't be opera seria if the story did not meander through the further twists and turns of love interests and treason, but Zeno’s writing keeps the storyline on course and some of his characters can hold their own against more famous heroes of the repertoire. 

The title role, Merope, is one of these characters. She has relatively few arias but, when sung by Magdalena Kožená, each became a heart-stopping number. The Czech mezzo’s portrayal gave the tortured Merope the dramatic stature of a Dejanira, the heroine of Handel’s masterpiece Hercules. The music lies low in the tessitura and, at times, she plunged to a deep chest register to striking effect. Just as impressive was the intensity with which she delivered the recitatives: every consonant rang, every inflection in the voice was charged with emotion and meaning. 

Kangmin Justin Kim
© Victor Santiago

Returning prince Epitide, interpreted by countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim, might not have been as strongly characterised but his singing certainly impressed. As one would expect from the character written for star castrato Farinelli, Epitide gets the best music. In the long phrases full of pathos of “Sposa, non mi conosci” the purity of Kim’s soprano left the audience holding its breath, while the smug virtuosity with which he executed the intricate coloratura of his showstopping nightingale aria “Quell’usignolo” was simply baffling. As Trasimede, the role of Merope’s confidante originally created by Cafarelli, mezzo-soprano Vasilisa Berzhanskaya displayed a richness of colours and a mastery of dynamics that confirmed her reputation as a rising star. Juan Sancho’s bright and pliable tenor made a convincing villain of Polifonte. Mezzo-sopranos Beth Taylor and Rachel Raggiotti and countertenor Carlo Vistoli completed this virtuosic cast with pleasingly contrasted timbres.

The sparse public of the Concertgebouw clearly felt this revival of Giacomelli’s music merited a wider audience, greeting the end of the performance with cheers and much foot-stamping on the wooden floors to emulate a larger crowd.