In times where musical luxury is sometimes associated with having a pop star perform a short “Happy Birthday” and a handful of songs in a private performance – and for a usually undisclosed (and indecent) fee, having a whole piece of music composed for an occasion, or organising a private performance by a famous orchestra, is almost unimaginable. 200 years ago and earlier, however, music was written to order or as a gift with a dedication and given with the best available cast to enhance all kinds of feasts (as one learns from the evening’s program, Rossini even produced music for the christening of his banker’s son). A popular form for these occasion-inspired pieces was the cantata: a lot less complex and costly than an entire opera, this vocal genre was bent in variations that range from simple voice and piano arrangements to pieces that include dance or chorus performances. Le nozze di Teti, e di Peleo, an azione coro-drammatico, belongs to the latter and was written in celebration of the wedding of Maria Carolina, Princess of Naples and Sicily, with Charles Ferdinand Duc de Berry (or, more profanely, the signing of their marriage contract) in 1816.

Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting Ensemble Matheus © Edouard Brane
Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting Ensemble Matheus
© Edouard Brane

This wedding took place only a year after Maria Carolina’s grandfather, Ferdinand IV, had restored the absolutistic monarchy following the Napoleonic intermezzo in Naples and Sicily, and the tone of the libretto (a great success with its first audience) has to be understood in this political context: it doesn’t only tell a then-well-known plot from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also praises the royal couple and their ancestors and likens them to the literary protagonists; the lily, emblematic flower of the Bourbons, is also frequently mentioned. The controversial parts of the story of Thetis and Peleus (a rape stands at the beginning of their relationship and at their wedding, Eris produces the Apple of Discord, a deed which ultimately leads to the War of Troy) are elegantly omitted, or, in the case of Eris (Cerere), add some welcome suspense to the text that otherwise reads like an obscure piece by a Handel contemporary.

The music, however, is gorgeous and features original material such as an aria for Cerere that sets the voice partly in dissonance to the violins, but Rossini also skilfully used motifs and even whole arias from various operas – it was particularly astonishing to hear that he had already re-written “Cessa di più resistere” from Il barbiere di Siviglia for the female voice a year before it became La Cenerentola’s most popular aria.

With the exception of Mari Eriksmoen (who impressed as Teti with a powerful and clear tone), the performance of this curious (but by all means interesting) piece was given with members of the cast from the house’s recent run of Le Comte Ory, including the Ensemble Matheus under Jean-Christophe Spinosi in the pit. As Peleo, Lawrence Brownlee was very enjoyable and never sounded strained; this is to be rated all the more as the vocal tour the force that is Count Ory was on his schedule for the previous as well as the following night. His colourful and vibrato-rich timbre was a bit of a stark contrast to Eriksmoen’s, but blended beautifully in the duets with tenor colleague Andrew Owens, whose Giove was the best I’ve heard of him so far. He as well mezzo-soprano Gaia Petrone (Giunone) and soprano Anna Maria Sarra (Cerere) are members of the house’s young ensemble, and the benefits of working with opera stars and singing title roles at the Kammeroper clearly show. Particularly memorable was a Giunone–Cerere duet and Sarra’s forceful delivery of “Più di mesta” (set to lines about an arrowless Amor igniting the sparks of happiness before Hymen’s altar). As the chorus, the ever-impeccable Arnold Schoenberg Chor could have done with fewer singers – the sound produced was overwhelming in parts.

Preceding the wedding cantata were the overtures from La pietra del paragone and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. While the first proved to be a good idea simply because of its newness to the average opera-goer (and because of a few funny sliding notes in the music as well), the latter performed on period instruments is a bit of a challenge on ears that are used to a more polished Rossini sound. While playing with the dedication and verve that are typical of period bands like the Ensemble Matheus (to which Spinosi’s physical and humorous conducting contributed much), their instruments inevitably produce a rather matte sound that I find lovely in Baroque repertory, but I prefer my all-orchestral Rossini in sparkling brilliance instead of musical shabby chic.