Antonio e Cleopatra
Ricciardo and Hasse
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Pavilion Theatre
July 13, 16, 20, 22, 2022, 1hr 25min
This is Buxton International Festival’s second fully home-grown opera production for 2022. Antonio e Cleopatra is a “serenata” – a baroque mini-opera employing a tiny orchestra and a smaller cast, and the title tells it all as there are just the two of them.
The work was written in 1725 by Johann Hasse, a German who, like Handel, had his first successes in Italy, and created for production in Naples, then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs.
As the state museum in Vienna will proudly tell you, the Habsburg imperial crown, inherited from Charlemagne, has symbols that show supposed continuity from the Caesars, and this piece makes the point by having Cleo and Mark Antony finally console their unhappy lot (after the battle of Actium) by looking to a future world ruled by Kaiser Charles VI and his missus, Kaiserin Elisabeth. Very loyalist, if a tad historically unlikely.
So how to present a two-acter in which the lovers (both written for high voices) spend the whole time telling each other how they feel, and nothing actually happens? This is baroque opera, and the convention is that each aria (always in da capo repeat-the-beginning-after-a-middle-section form) represents one emotion only – despair, anger, renewed love, determination, regret, resignation, heroic fatalism and so on. The succession gives the singers opportunities to show what they can do in each mood, and that’s the drama.
Director Evangeline Cullingworth (with the help of designer Grace Venning) seems to find parallels in the agonies of a penniless (or even homeless) young couple of the present day.
We’re in a near-bare bedroom, and they have nothing but the clothes they stand up in and one big suitcase of a few remaining treasured things. These turn out to include bits of Roman armour, a pair of angel wings, some wigs, theatrical costumes, imitation pistols and hair brushes. Perhaps they have been acting in some dead-end theatre, as finally they dress up in full Carry On Cleo mode for the suicide pact that ends the piece.
The props, of course, give them something to do as they emote their way through Hasse’s arias (plus a couple of duets, one to close each act), with all those repeats. The vocal music is extremely taxing, though, and the quality of the two singers – Thalie Knights, as Antonio, and Ellie Neate, as Cleopatra – is what the audience has come to hear. They are top-class young artists, well able to embellish their repeats tastefully, and in Ellie Neate’s case making the most of her frequent bursts of high-powered top notes (originally written for Farinelli). The first-act closing duet, “Un solo sospiro”, verges on the Handelian in its variety of emotive resource and showed the two both at their best.
Musical direction from the harpsichord is by Satoko Doi-Luck, with a tireless in-period string quintet beside her.
Info and tickets here