Demetrio, Opera Settecento, Cadogan Hall, September 2016Posted on 22 September 2016
The libretto to Hasse’s Demetrio, by the famous Metastasio who was born and died a year before the composer, is based on real events in the mid-second century BC. In 150 BC Demetrius Soter of the Greek Seleucid dynasty, which controlled most of the Middle East north of Arabia, was defeated in battle by Alexander Balas, who had married into the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt after cleverly presenting himself as of royal blood.
In Metastasio’s story Demetrius Soter had left his son Alcestes with the faithful Phenicius to be raised in Crete by shepherds, unaware of his royal ancestry. Later adopted by Phenicius, the young man attains the highest honours in Alexander’s army and wins the heart of the king’s daughter Cleonice. At the start of the opera Alexander has been overthrown and executed, Alcestes is missing in action, and Cleonice is proclaimed queen. She must choose a noble husband, and Phenicius must pick his moment to introduce the real background to Alcestes, who later becomes Demetrius II.
In true opera seria style the story centres around the emotions of the characters, with Phenicius’s natural son Olinthus more than ready to become Cleonice’s consort and rule the kingdom. His noble ancestry surely makes him the perfect choice, and countertenor Ray Chenez brings passion and indignant fury to the role, showing fire in the belly in Act I, with his Act II defiance of stormy waters in Non fidi al mar che freme being a high point of the evening. As his father Phenicius, tenor Rupert Charlesworth was superb, his stirring aria in Act I immediately raising the level of the evening, and the emotional aria at the end of Act II well expressed his feelings after Cleonice’s confidante Barsene admits to working against him, being in love with Alceste herself. Ciara Hendrick sang this role beautifully, her emotions and confusions at life’s exigencies finding excellent vocal form.
She in turn is loved by Mithranes, commander of the Royal Guard, calmly and evenly sung by soprano Augusta Hebbert, but eventually all ends happily. The excellent Erica Eloff sang elegantly as Queen Cleonice, but I would have preferred more chemistry with countertenor Michael Taylor as her beloved Alceste, who lacked vocal heft though performing in dramatic style.
Magnificent support from conductor Leo Duarte, whose musical enthusiasm clearly inspired the orchestral players of Opera Settecento. The music itself is a delight, though its composer Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783) became somewhat forgotten. By the time of his death operatic rivals such as Handel and Vivaldi had long since passed away, and the style of his beloved opera seria had been superseded. Without famous non-operatic pieces such as the Messiah or Four Seasons to keep his name alive it was largely forgotten, and this is the first performance of his Demetrio in modern times and the first ever in the UK.