CD Review: Johann Adolf Hasse’s ‘Enea in Caonia’
Hasse’s Serenata Given an Elegant and Sensitive Performance in its First Ever Full RecordingBy Alan Neilson
The serenata was essentially a court entertainment written to celebrate special occasions, such as weddings and christenings of the high and mighty, or visits by important dignitaries, performed in front of an invited audience. With the decline of the European aristocracy, it lost its role, so that by the early 19th century it had become an obsolete form to the extent that even today interest in the genre remains marginal.
The release, on the CPO label, of the first-ever full recording of Johann Adolf Hasse’s 1727 serenata “Enea in Caonia,” to a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia and his son Luigi Maria Stampiglia, represents a welcome addition to the catalog, especially for early music enthusiasts, although such is its quality it should appeal to anyone who enjoys listening to music for the voice.
Hasse wrote the serenata in his twenties while residing in Naples, where he was studying under the guidance of Alessandro Scarlatti. Little is actually known about its origins: it is not known who commissioned the work, where it was premiered, or the names of the cast, although scholars have hypothesized that it was commissioned by the Viceroy Cardinal Michael Friedrich von Althann to celebrate the visit of Violante Beatrice of Bavaria to Naples and that the castrato Carestini, Farinelli’s arch-rival, was probably one of the singers
As with many serenatas, “Enea in Caonia,” is dramatically thin with hardly any action; in essence, it is little more than a celebration of Enea’s goal to establish a new Troy on the banks of the Tiber, although it does also include a nod to the foundation of the city of Naples.
Musically, however, it is a beautiful work, a wonderful example of the gallant style of the Neapolitan Baroque, which charms with its pleasing classical refinement and balance, its light and seemingly simple melodies, and its elegant and graceful orchestration. Arias are set in da capo form, allowing the singers to display their skills in portraying a range of emotions, in which the passions are restrained, disciplined, Apollonian.
The all-Italian cast assembled for this recording is one of real quality, comprising contralto Francesca Ascioti as Enea, soprano Carmela Remigio as Ilia, mezzo-soprano Raffaella Lupinacci as Andromaca, and soprano Paola Valentina Molinari as King Eleno. The only male voice is that of tenor Celso Albelo, who plays the part of Niso. All are vocally excellent in their own right, each with their own distinctive voice, but which complement and contrast wonderfully, creating a colorful and texturally seductive tapestry supported by the period-instrument ensemble of the Enea Barock Orchestra under the direction of Stefano Montanari.
Normally, the parts in a serenata are of equal importance and size, but for “Enea in Caonia” the roles of Ilia and Eleno are more substantial, each having four arias of greater difficulty compared to Andromaca and Enea with three each and Niso with only two.
All the arias are separated by secco recitatives which, given the work’s thin narrative, are brief and act as little more than linking devices to provide structure. They are, nevertheless, given due care and attention, and delivered to a consistently high standard. There is one section of accompanied recitative, “Gran semideo troisano” in which Eleno foretells of Enea’s coming struggles, in which Molinari’s intelligent delivery captures the nuances of the text.
Stars of the Show
Remigio’s performance as the huntress Ilia was skillfully and beautifully crafted, full of detail and expressive depth, and presented with apparent ease. On meeting Enea and his men Ilia is overcome with joy, and gives voice to her feelings in her aria, “Pur s’è placata.” In what is an accomplished presentation, Remigio spins out finely nuanced and detailed lines, allowing the alluring timbrel beauty and versatility of the voice to shine.
In “È vero, che son povera” she successfully conjures up a portrait of Ilia’s determination to live an Arcadian idyllic lifestyle. Singing with a fresh, light, and open sound, Remigio sensitively caresses the words, occasionally inflecting them with meaningful accents, each phrase is delicately fashioned, and her light coloratura sparkles alluringly. In the aria, “Tu che de’ suoi tormenti,” Ilia rejects Niso’s love which she then reaffirms in her next aria, “Saper tu vuoi.” Her vocal clarity and flexibility are again in evidence in what are two expressively nuanced presentations, the second of which is delivered with a determined, spirited, almost defiant, edge.
Molinari likewise presents a series of detailed and finely drawn arias, in which she splendidly expresses the differing emotional affect of each, building a clear picture of King Eleno’s nobility.
Her opening aria, “Ti baccio, l’abbraccio,” in which she gives voice to Eleno’s joy at meeting his old friend Enea, shows off her skill in colouring the voice and her vibrant phrasing. The aria, “Dai segni del tuo viso,” is given a gentle, graceful rendition, in which the delicate interplay of her voice with the strings highlights her vocal clarity, delicate phrasing, and alluring timbre, while in the aria, “Biondo nume,” her versatility is demonstrated in a beautiful coloratura display. Her final aria, “Le memorande imprese,” is a real delight.
Having sacrificed two bullocks to the gods, Eleno experiences visions of mitres, diadems, thrones and scepters, symbols of the Roman church, whose foundation still lies many years into the future. Unable to understand their meaning it causes Eleno to become slightly confused and in a state of awe, which Molinari presents with a fitting degree of emotional understatement in what is a truly beguiling rendition, highlighting her consummate technical skills, in which her seductive phrasing, light coloraturas, delicate trilling and tonal purity truly impress.
Lupinacci is a name that is growing in stature on the international circuit and listening to her performance in the role of Andromaca it is easy to understand why. Her aria, “Spargo rami di fiori, e di mirti,” in which she mourns the loss of her beloved Hector, is sung with such sensitivity and depth it captures not just her loss, but also her inner strength and nobility. The voice is warm, dark, and seductive, which she shades with subtle, colorful gradations. In contrast, her second aria, “Quanto improvvise, tanto più belle,” is more joyous, which she renders with a pleasing lilt, and although she is very happy to see her countrymen once again, the aria is delivered with the appropriate degree of restraint found in one of high birth. Her final aria, “Con lusinghieri accenti,” is more pressing, as she attempts to fortify Enea’s courage and determination in his quest to establish Rome, her voice is direct and forceful, incorporating strong, neatly crafted coloraturas to emphasise her convictions.
Ascioti’s makes the most of her richly colored voice in an expressive portrayal of the hero Enea. Her first and second arias, “Se, qual tu sei, qui non si belle” and “Troia bella distrutta dal foco,” are given vigorous, dynamic presentations in which full use is made of the voice’s chiaroscuro, its contrasting sonorities intensifying the quality of expression. In her third aria, “Spesso viene tormentosa,” Ascioti presents a very different side of Enea, as he laments the loss of his wife, in which she captures his pain in an expressively taught rendition, each line finely molded, and one for which her tone is perfectly suited.
The least significant role is that of Niso, Enea’s confidante, whose role is to provide an unrequited love interest. His two arias, “Ninfa sei, che al bosco, al monte” and “Dal chiaro lampo” are pleasing, understated confessions of his love for Ilia. Both have attractive melodies, which Albelo presents quite beautifully, his phrasing suitably delicate and refined.
Tying it Together
Montanari elicits a sensitive performance from the Enea Barock Orchestra which never strays into excess. Although it is also a performance full of energy in which the strings are encouraged to attack the line, and tempi vibrantly applied, it is never at the expense of the overriding aesthetic of elegance and gracefulness which ultimately define the style. The mood of each aria is captured perfectly, exemplified by the mournful accompaniment to “Spargo rami di fiori, e di mirti,” and its heroic endorsement in “Troia bella distrutta dal foco.” The period instrument ensemble, comprising strings, woodwind, horns, theorbo, and harpsichord, provide a warm, intimate accompaniment, which combine with the voices to create beautifully balanced and delicately woven textures.
The work ends with a spirited, energetic chorus, “Nel suo nome ogni bene si celo,” in praise of Enea. The entire orchestral and vocal ensemble combine beautifully in a balanced and well-paced delivery, which brings the work to a conclusion with an optimistic flourish.
The accompanying booklet includes detailed biographies of the performers, the full text of the libretto, and an interesting article by Raffaele Mellace, which provides context, speculates on the history of the work as well as offering interesting insights. Unfortunately, some sloppy editing, including errors with the track numbers, not only detract from its overall quality but irritate when searching for a specific track.
The quality of the recording itself was a slight disappointment as it occasionally lacks the pristine acoustical clarity that one now expects from modern recordings, although this criticism should not be read as a major drawback.
On the contrary, “Enea in Caonia” is a wonderful disc, full of charm and elegance. Its arias delight with their refined sentiments and strong melodies, which the performers present with skill and beauty. Moreover, it is also an excellent testament to the quality of Hasse’s skill as a composer for the voice.
It is a hugely enjoyable recording and strongly recommended.