tue 25/06/2024

Issipile, La Nuova Musica, Bates, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Issipile, La Nuova Musica, Bates, Wigmore Hall

Issipile, La Nuova Musica, Bates, Wigmore Hall

Spirited and entertaining revival of an esoteric baroque opera last heard in public in 1737

La Nuova Musica, game for anything© Graeme Robertson

A question flitted through my mind in advance. Was I down to review La Nuova Musica’s modern premiere of Conti’s baroque opera Issipile, or was it Issipile’s opera Conti?  To many music lovers, even those well grounded in history, both possibilities must be equally plausible.

But then the penny quickly dropped: this Conti is Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681or so to 1732), the Florence-born composer based at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, who wrote among others the opera David, stunningly brought back to life on CD six years ago by another period instrument group, Alan Curtis’s Il Complesso Barocco.

Possibly Conti’s 21st century reputation would increase if the titles of his revived operas stretched beyond a character’s name. There’s certainly little to improve in his music. David revealed a composer only one rung below Handel and Vivaldi in the realms of melodic invention and dramatic fire, and Issipile (or L’Issipile, as it turns out) only offers more of the same. Admittedly, compared to Rameau’s kaleidoscopic colours the hues of Conti’s orchestra (strings, continuo, a sole oboe and bassoon) have all the verve of a brown paper bag. But there’s still massive rhythmic vitality, harmonic surprises, eloquent dynamic shifts: meat and drink to David Bates’ very enthusiastic musicians, beavering away through lots of semiquavers. Then there’s the string of enticing display arias – music fully worth the skills of Lucy Crowe, Flavio Berri-Benedetti, Lawrence Zazzo, and the other voices joining forces to revive an opera supposedly last heard in Hamburg in 1737.

There was nothing dull about Crowe’s singing as she fearlessly flung the voice up to its ceiling

The weakness of L’Issipile lies in its ridiculous libretto, a tale featuring Jason and the Argonauts, spun from Ovid, Herodotus and other worthies by that prolific factory hand Metastasio, a master at leaving his characters void of action and mired in internal debate. Even so, the static forms of the opera’s three acts never sparked audience slumber. How could it, with a plot set in motion by the vengeful women of Lemnos, determined to slay their warrior husbands, fathers and lovers for picking up Thracian cuties during their victorious campaigns abroad?

In the part of Issipile (or Hypsipyle in English), Lucy Crowe had one of the duller roles to play – the noble, conflicted heroine torn between saving the life of her father, the king, or her betrothed prince, Jason. But there was nothing dull about Crowe’s singing as she fearlessly flung the voice up to its ceiling, cleanly navigated Conti’s roulades, and even displayed enough honest emotion to allow us to take some of Hypsipyle’s travails to heart. As Lemnos’s strident chief avenger Eurynome, Diana Montague really needed more vocal fury – as it was, Eurynome seemed about as scary as a librarian. Yet her voice and characterisation strengthened over time: every singer in David Bates’ crew had their show turn eventually.

And counter-tenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetti had the most. He played the treacherous villain of the piece, Learchus –the heroine’s spurned lover turned pirate, with a band of men so nasty (so the surtitles told us) that they were even “feared by sailors”.  If Ferri-Benedetti displayed a proprietorial air as he swanned about, grinning with braggadocio, mischievously juggling his vocal registers, the air was deserved. For it was Ferri-Benedetii who blew the dust from the score at Vienna’s national library, edited the manuscript, and made it the subject of his doctoral thesis. Lawrence Zazzo (Jason) had no such personal stake, but pitched in with almost equal vigour.

Heavily pregnant – I feared she might give birth at any moment – Rebecca Bottone put all her strength into the role of Rodope, the heroine’s perpetually anguished confidante. Last of the crew, but not least, was John Mark Ainsley, as Thoas, the Lemnos king. Some of his arias needed a little extra watering with lyrical juices. But he too got himself focused and settled down to have fun, as all of us did, with an opera impossible not to enjoy, and impossible to take too seriously.

Massive rhythmic vitality, harmonic surprises, eloquent dynamic shifts: all meat and drink to David Bates’ enthusiastic musicians


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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