When your wife is a famous soprano and your best friend is Europe’s most sought-after librettist, you’re likely to have one heck of an opera-writing career. That certainly held true for German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 – 1783), who was quite a big deal in his day.
He started out as an operatic tenor in Hamburg, but soon made the best possible choice for anyone who wanted to flourish in opera in the early 18th century: He got out of Germany. Italy was the place to be, so he hightailed it to Naples. By 1725 he’d composed a short work for singing superstar Farinelli, which landed him plenty more commissions. J.A. Hasse had arrived, and all of Western Europe wanted him.
Although he also wrote a fair amount of sacred vocal music, Hasse was best known for his approximately 50 operas and opera-like works. Unfortunately for his legacy, he was the perfect representative of galant pre-classical style, meaning that his popularity plummeted as soon as the new cool kids (Gluck and Mozart in particular) introduced the world to more experimental harmony, form, and literary topics. Today Hasse is considered specialized repertoire, with only a few recordings coming out each year.
One offering is by countertenor Filippo Minecca, with backing from the ensemble Il gioco de’Matti. The title Arcadian Cantatas (Pan Classics) refers to the miniature secular chamber operas known as cantatas in the 18th century (quite a different genre from what J.S. Bach and other Lutheran composers called cantatas).
Minecca’s male alto voice is captivating, and the ensemble provides him with graceful support. Consider this aria from a cantata called Oh Dio! Partir conviene (Oh, God! If he should leave…). These short works didn’t have much in the way of plot. Here’s the entire synopsis of this cantata from the website HasseProject.com: “Mirzia is our heroine and her erstwhile lover is forced to be separated from her. Oh, the anguish!!” This ain’t Shakespeare. But the ornamented vocal writing is delightful, and a real challenge to the performer.
Like any composer with courtly patrons, Hasse often needed to write instrumental works, too. Ensemble Il gioco de’Matti made the reasonable guess that the recits and arias of a sung cantata might have been interspersed with the dance-inspired movements of a Baroque-style sonata. The Allegro from Hasse’s Op. 1, No. 1, fits the bill, and so they included that, featuring the energetic, virtuosic flute of Giulia Barbini.
In her Hasse album, Arie d’opere (Tactus), Venetian soprano Elena De Simone takes on arias from meatier Hasse works, mainly opera seria, some of which no longer exist in complete manuscripts. L’Ulderica, for example, was premiered in 1729, but we know so little about it that even the librettist’s name has been lost. Yet the aria “Fissa né sguardi miei” (Fix neither my looks) survives.
I wish De Simone and the instrumentalists of Il Mosaico made me feel that this was better news. But the ensemble playing has ragged edges, and De Simone, somehow always at the bottom of her range, wobbles and waddles through the intricate melody line.
She fares slightly better in this aria from Tito Vespasiano, an opera with words by the celebrated librettist Pietro Metastasio, who often collaborated with Hasse and was his lifelong friend. De Simone’s long notes and higher pitches seem controlled at first, but she quickly begins to over-sing.
On a recent Profil Records release, the German group Cappella Sagittariana Dresden takes a different approach to preserving Hasse’s output: They have recorded an entire opera. Attilio Regolo is a three-act work from 1750 with a Metastasio libretto, telling the story of a Roman soldier held prisoner in Carthage. The leading lady, his girlfriend Attilia, was originally played by Hasse’s wife, Faustina Bordoni.
It’s appropriate that a Dresden ensemble has made (to my knowledge) the only complete recording of this opera, considering that Hasse composed it for the Dresden court. This recording actually captures a 1997 live performance conducted by Frieder Bernius, although it was not released until 2018.
Unlike the overtures of later operas, in the Baroque and Pre-Classical periods composers normally opened their operas with sinfonias. These orchestral movements differ from overtures in that they aren’t as obviously preparing the audience emotionally for the story to come. (A huge exception to this is Handel, who knew how to take dramatic advantage of a sinfonia, especially in his oratorios.)
Here’s the Act 1 Sinfonia from Attilio Regolo, rendered bravely by the Cappella Sagittariana. My heart aches for the oboists who had to surmount all those jagged 16th-note triplet passages. The contrasting section, starting at 2:21, allows the whole orchestra to relax into a more elegant style.
This time the soloist is a coloratura soprano, Carmen Fuggiss. This philosophical Act I aria, “Sempre e maggior del vero l’idea d’una sventura” (The idea of a misfortune is always greater than the truth), is particularly interesting for Hasse’s use of quick, biting syncopations known as Scottish snaps because the technique reminded musicians of bagpipe ornaments. Henry Purcell helped to popularize these in the late 17th century. Figgiss and the Cappella spin out the spritely aria with panache.
Since opera’s invention in the late 16th century, it has featured choral writing. Hasse’s full-scale operas are no exception. In this Act III chorus, Bernius does a fine job balancing the small vocal ensemble with the instrumental lines that double or decorate the vocal parts. You’ll notice that, compared to a Handel or Bach choral movement, this one has very little complex counterpoint. That’s a sign of changing tastes in the pre-classical period.
There’s one more Hasse recording to mention, Venetian Ballads. Barcaroles from the Walsh Collection (G&G Classics). I went through a complicated series of reactions to this album. First, I was annoyed that the singing sounded so amateurish (if passionate). Next, I was grateful that somebody, anybody, had bothered to record these lovely little musical bonbons.
And finally, I thought about who would have sung them in Hasse’s day. Probably not the finest singers in Italy. They were dainty amusements, nice to do at parties. This may in fact be a historically authentic performance!
The album features a host of singers, but I’ll leave you with just two examples. Try to focus on the pieces more than on the singing, and imagine yourself perched on a velvet settee in an exquisitely appointed parlor.
The first is soprano Anna Sanachina:
And here’s tenor Andrea Biscontin, to further entertain you while you sip your espresso (an exotic treat in mid-18th-century Italy!) from a gold-rimmed porcelain cup.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Balthasar Denner/public domain.
This article first appeared in Issue 80.