QUEEN KIRKBY: THE LEADER OF THE PACK!
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), a German composer, was the most esteemed and highly paid composer of his time, admired by J.S.Bach and Mozart. Besides 'opera serie', he composed cantatas, concertos, instrumental and keyboard sonatas and much sacred music. He was the first composer to set Metastasio's texts, and his music reflects the neo-classical ideal of Metastasio's style. A powerful dramatist, he was renowned for his use of the accompaniment recitative, which is very clear in 'Cleofide'. Hasse's long career covered the period around the middle of the 18th century, and his later works reveal attempts at overall unity by means of tonal phrasing and a reaction against the 'da capo' aria like those in the later works of Gluck. In 1734, he became composer to the court of Dresden, becoming the most powerful exponent of the Italian operatic style in Germany. 'Cleofide' was first performed in Dresden in September, 1731.
'Cleofide' is concerned with fictitious events surrounding the conquest of Northern Italy by Alexander, who has, on this occasion, shown himself in his love for Cleofide (Indian Queen), to be generous to her as well as magnanimous and merciful with the traitor, Timagene. The major part of the story is taken from Quintius Curtius. Some things are mere legend though not far from historically appropriate.
The cast consists of six main singers, all quite skilled, both vocally and dramatically. The female sopranos, Emma Kirkby(Cleofide) and Agnes Mellon(Erissena) have pleasing voices, but dissimilar enough one from the other that the listener can discern which is which. Kirkby's voice is somewhat lighter and thus seems more flexible. It behooves me to say that she presents a real 'star' image for she is such a natural born performer with an enormous amount of experience. She shines in the complex music of Bach as well as in Purcell's charming odes. All of these soloists perform with temperment invoking the good ol' days of duelling divos and divas.
There are, in fact, only treble voices in this cast: two female sopranos, one male sopranist and three male altos (countertenors). It is certainly to Christie's credit that he chose the four male falsettists with easily discernible voices. Randall Wong(sopranist)presents an invigorating sound as his high notes slip into place with a strong and rich quality. It is fortunate that Dominique Visse(alto) has a most unusual timbre, a somewhat 'grating' sound, which serves him well in the role of Alexander who has considerable participation. Derek Ragin(alto)possesses his own unique sound using much vibrato and ornamentation plus an extended voice range with a slight break in the middle. David Cordier(one of my favorite falsettists) sings with a smooth and even mezzo voice.
The recitatives are lengthy, but I did not find this annoying because the action moved forward in an uninterrupted fashion. The arias are pleasant sounding with uncomplicated melodies, and the accompaniment of the Cappella Coloniensis was competent and sensitive to the singers' renditions. With William Christie at the helm, it is not surprising that the singers and instrumentalists go from strength to stength as the recording progresses. Those who enjoy Handel oratorios most likely will enjoy this work too, because stylistically they are very close.
ROBERT HUGILL,CLASSICAL CD REVIEW: "The title role is taken by Emma Kirkby, on suberb form...sheer brilliance in Kirkby's technic..."
The opera is 230 minutes; four CD's, and includes a booklet with pertinent information and the libretto; English, German and Italian. This is a reissue of Christie's 1986 recording that is now accessible at a more reasonable price.