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Johann Adolph HASSE (1699-1783)
Didone Abbandonate (1742)
Didone - Theresa Holzhauser (mezzo)
Enea - Flavio Ferri-Benedetti (counter-tenor)
Iarba - Valer Barna-Sabadus (counter-tenor)
Selene - Magdakena Hinterdobler (soprano)
Araspe - Maria Celeng (soprano)
Osmida - Andreas Burkhart (baritone)
Hofkapelle München/Michael Hofstetter
rec. 24 May-1 June 2011, Prinzregententheater, Munich
NAXOS 8.660323-5 [3 CDs: 50:05 + 34:10 + 78:58]

Of the many composers of Italian opera during the 18th century, Johann Adolph Hasse eclipses all save Handel. Hasse was undeniably well connected; he studied with Nicola Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti, and he married the famous soprano Faustina Bordini. Although he was based at Dresden, his operas were performed all over Europe.
In general terms Hasse’s graceful arias can anticipate the rococo style galant, and his orchestra succeeds in matching the music to the drama. He was the favourite composer of the poet Pietro Metastasio, each of whose librettos he set at least once. It was through him that Dresden became one of the most important centres for music north of the Alps. The Italians, whose operatic style was now being substantially represented by a north German composer, honoured him with the affectionate name ‘il caro sassone’ (‘the dear Saxon’).
Didone Abbandanota has a complex history. Metastasio originally wrote his libretto for the Teatro di San Bartolomeo in Naples, and his adaptation of the celebrated story of the Trojans in Carthage was the most popular treatment of the Queen Dido tale in whole of the 18th century. It was even adapted into the 19th century by Saverio Mercadante, an opera composer Giuseppe Verdi particularly admired.
Hasse wrote his opera in 1742 in connection with the celebrations surrounding the birthday of August III, the Elector of Saxony, to whom he had been appointed Kapellmeister back in 1731. Needless to say, the first interpreter of the title role was Faustina Bordini. The convention of the lieto fine, or happy ending, was paramount in opera seria plots during the first half of the 18th century, but in a handful of works Metastasio experimented with the dramatic impact made possible by the tragico fine, or tragic ending. This is the case in Didone abbandonata, whose final scene is Dido’s suicide.
It is interesting that Metastasio begins the action of the story only at a late stage, after Aeneas’s decision to depart for Italy has already been made. The nature of his resolution is explored in the first act, and overall it provides the basis for the conflict that lies at the heart of the work. However, as in Purcell’s famous treatment of the story - which is on a much smaller scale in every sense - it is Dido’s anticipation of the personal catastrophe which will befall her, expressed in her desperate efforts to prevent Aeneas’s departure, that is of most interest.
It is understandably during the opera’s final scene that the intensity of emotion surrounding Dido’s character and her music reaches its height. Here Hasse is bold, since this is the only closing monologue to be found in any of Metastasio’s librettos. The scene is notable for the use of versi spezzati (broken verses), which reveal her deep insecurity. At its heart lies the short cavatina ‘Vado … ma dove’, whose music derives from the surrounding declaimed accompanied recitative. Thus Hasse emphasises her helplessness through the contrasting natures of accompanied recitative and the more lyrical aria style, a contrast which serves to highlight her desolation. The tragic style prevails.
The present live recording delivers sound that is clear and generally well balanced, though along the way there are sundry bumps and crashes which from the listener’s point of view occur for no particular reason. There is no libretto issued with the set, but one is available for reference via the Naxos website. However, printing it off would be a time-consuming and costly exercise, which presumably is why Naxos chose not to include it with the recording itself.
Therefore the burden of responsibility placed upon the booklet synopsis becomes the greater, and it needs to be said that this booklet is something of a disappointment. There is relatively little relationship between the cue points for the various scenes and arias, and the story which is described. Why not include the cue points within the synopsis?
A similar stricture applies to the layout of the discs themselves. Since there are three acts, the logical approach would be to allocate each act to a single CD. But no: Act Two is split between discs two and three, even though the whole of it, at less then 70 minutes, is shorter than the timing of the third CD which combines the second half of Act Two with the whole of Act Three. It makes no sense at all and is hard to fathom.
The orchestral playing of the Hofkapelle München is lively and colourful, allowing the range of Hasse’s orchestration to make its mark. Moreover the opening sinfonia is splendidly done. The vocal parts are dominated by high voices, and only the minor part of Osmida (baritone) is allocated to a lower voice. It says much for the performances of the major roles that distinctive personalities are conveyed, and both Theresa Holzhauser as Dido and the counter-tenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetto as Aeneas emerge with great credit. The latter’s heroic departure aria in Act Three is a veritable tour de force, so too Dido’s final scene and her important solo at the centre of Act Two, which has music of beautiful and deeply felt sincerity.
Terry Barfoot