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ClassicsOnline Home » HASSE, J.A.: Didone abbandonata [Opera] (Holzhauser, Ferri-Benedetti, Barna-Sabadus, Hinterdobler, Celeng, Burkhart, Hofkapelle Munchen, Hofstetter)
One of the outstanding composers of his day, Johann Adolph Hasse was seen as possessing “the same qualities of true genius, taste and judgment” as his librettist Pietro Metastasio. Didone abbandonata represents the once hugely popular 18th-century genre of opera seria, exploring the same tragic story as Purcell’s earlier Dido and Aeneas while expanding the heroine’s conflicts between regal duties, love, and helplessness in the face of desertion.
By John T. Hughes
International Record Review
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783)
Opera Seria in Three Acts
Libretto by Pietro Metastasio (rev. Francesco Algarotti)
Didone (Dido) - Theresa Holzhauser, Mezzo-soprano
Enea (Aeneas) - Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, Countertenor
Iarba (Iarbas) - Valer Barna-Sabadus, Countertenor
Selene - Magdalena, Soprano
Araspe - Maria Celeng, Soprano
Osmida - Andreas Burkhart, Baritone
In the eighteenth century the genre of opera seria enjoyed great popularity and many composers devoted their attention to it, yet the genre and its composers and their works fell rapidly and irrevocably into obscurity. Even the greatest composers of the age shared the same fate and so Johann Adolph Hasse, at one time one of the most outstanding figures of opera in the eighteenth century, is today just a name known only to cognoscenti. Along with his wife Faustina Hasse-Bordoni, one of the leading singers of her time, Hasse was a distinguished visitor across the whole of Europe. 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 moniker “il caro sassone” (“the dear Saxon”).
Hasse, however, who was born in 1699 in Bergedorf near Hamburg and who moved to Naples in 1722 to be a pupil of the famous Alessandro Scarlatti, was by no means a composer only of opere serie. Every Italian composer of the time was expected to compose in specific genres—intermezzi, opera buffa, sacred and secular cantatas, oratorios in Latin and Italian, Masses and other works for the church as well as instrumental music. All the same Hasse owed his fame in his lifetime to the prestigious genre of opera seria, of which he wrote about fifty. His prominent position in the composition of opera seria is reflected in the artistic friendship which he formed with the style-setting writer of the genre, Pietro Metastasio. In the third volume of his Diary, the contemporary musicologist Charles Burney characterized them thus: “This poet and musician are the two halves of what, like Plato’s Androgyne, once constituted a whole; for they are possessed of the same qualities of true genius, taste and judgment; so richness, consistency, clarity and rigour are alike inseparable companions. […] He (Hasse) might be considered, not unfairly, to be as superior to his fellow composers, as well as to all other opera composers, as is Metastasio to other librettists.”
If one considers the almost endless list of settings of the first opera seria libretto by Pietro Metastasio, Didone abbandonata, one is amazed at the shadowy existence which it has today in comparison with Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate written 35 years earlier. Only Niccolo Jommelli’s setting exists in a complete recording and only the scores by Giuseppe Sarti and Leonardo Vinci were ever published. Written in 1724 for the Teatro di San Bartolomeo in Naples, Metastasio’s adaptation was the most popular libretto on the Dido theme in the eighteenth century, a tradition which was continued into the nineteenth century by Saverio Mercadante.
Johann Adolph Hasse wrote his version of Didone abbandonata in 1742 to celebrate the birthday of August III, the Elector of Saxony, and also King of Poland, to whom Hasse had been appointed Kapellmeister in 1731. The first interpreter of the title role was Hasse’s wife Faustina Bordoni, who was a prima donna at the Dresden Opera. Although it was the custom for operatic performances to be given on the occasion of the monarch’s birthdays or name-days, this dramma per musica was performed to the inner circle of the court society in the hunting lodge at Hubertusberg. The Hubertusberg version of 1742 and the version which was performed the following year during the Dresden Carnival differ from each other, however, in their respective final scenes. From annotations in a copy of the score held in the archives of the Saxon State Library it can be deduced that this was because of the technical limitations of the tiny theatre in the hunting lodge. The closing scene of the Dresden version portrays Dido’s death among the flames of Carthage, as in the original Virgil, whereas at the same point in the action at the premiere it was General Osmida who informed the audience of the tragic outcome.
Since by this time the royal sovereign was no longer identified with gods or heroes, as had been the case in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it became the practice for important court performances to add, at the end of the last act, a special occasion licenza (licence). This achieved the main purpose of honouring August III and at the same was in keeping with the festive nature of the performance.
A tragic ending, without an audience
Although the convention of the lieto fine, the happy ending, gradually prevailed in opera seria plots in the first half of the eighteenth century—and also in libretti which referred back to classical tragedies—in a few works Metastasio experimented with the dramatic impact of the tragico fine, the tragic ending. We find this not only in Didone abbandonata, but also in an earlier work, Catone in Utica, whose main character commits suicide in the final scene. But whereas Metastasio soon revised the libretto of this opera he left untouched the ending of his libretto about the Carthaginian queen.
Metastasio begins the action when Aeneas’s decision has already been made; in the first scene of the piece he admits to his plan to leave Carthage for Italy. In spite of expressing his doubts he is resolute—and that is the conflict inherent in the work. The inner story-line is driven not by the tension between duty and love, but rather by Dido’s anticipation of the personal catastrophe which will befall her, expressed in her desperate efforts to prevent Aeneas’s departure. Her fear of abandonment, which is exacerbated on the one hand by Iarba‘s political intimidation and on the other by her being thrust back into widowhood, adds to her hysteria. So the question is also raised whether it is Dido’s real wish to continue her relationship with Aeneas or whether she will panic at her state of abandonment.
After the conflict is exposed—without even an atmosphere-producing introduction—time is excessively drawn out in what follows. In the context of a dramatic dialogue that presents argument rather than emotion, Dido exerts her power as queen less frequently, and instead concentrates all her efforts in trying to prevent Aeneas’s departure. In her ‘triumph’ aria “Son regina e sono amante” in Act I she defends her political and emotional self-determination to Iarba. Her very being as both queen and lover has, however, become a balancing act, in which she visibly loses control of her emotional equilibrium. So Metastasio and Hasse let their heroine offer Aeneas a purely formal counter-argument; although at the beginning of the first act he is still riven by doubt he offers an almost stammered accompanied recitative, then composes himself and in the third act takes his leave with a heroic bravura aria (“A trionfar mi chiama”), devoid of any scruples.
For her part, Dido, in the final scene, takes her leave of the world in an accompanied recitative which, in its metre and linguistic style, clearly recalls Aeneas’s aria “Dovrei…ma no…”. In the first recitative section of this, the only closing monologue in the whole of Metastasio’s oeuvre, Hasse’s setting divides the eleven-syllable verse into musical phrases of seven and five syllables. These versi spezzati (broken verses) reveal Dido’s deep insecurity, and the consonant-rich language highlights her bitterness and criminatory mindset. The short cavatina “Vado…ma dove…”, derived from the declaimed accompanied recitative, emphasises through the contrasting elliptical verse structure and the sung element, Dido’s existential helplessness, bereft of voice and face to face with the expression of her all-embracing desolation. The following recitative passage maintains a tono grave assonance—serenity and a re-discovered majesty are mirrored in this tragic style.
Amid the raging inferno of Carthage Dido has discharged completely her responsibility as queen to her people. Instead of a sense of an indebted demise there is the stylisation of herself as a tragic figure. So Dido chooses a death of a myth-like character. After Aeneas’s curse she at least reverts to the imposing qualities of her identity as a queen and stage-manages her suicide for the benefit of posterity, without an audience in the here and now.
Prologue: Dido rules over her newly founded realm of Carthage on the coast of North Africa. Out of loyalty to her murdered husband Sicheo she had rejected all suitors for her hand until the time when Aeneas and his followers, fleeing from a burning Troy, were driven by a storm and shipwrecked on the coast of Carthage.
Aeneas explains that his father has appeared to him in a dream and reminded him of his destiny to found a new Troy in Italy. Aeneas decides to leave Carthage and abandon Dido but does not dare to tell her the truth. Iarba, an African king hitherto spurned by Dido, masquerades as his own envoy Arbace and gives her an ultimatum: unless she gives him her hand and rejects Aeneas he will mobilize the peoples of Africa against Carthage. Dido remains true to her political and emotional principles. Dido’s general, Osmida, offers Iarba his services to help him win over the queen and in return demands to be given dominion over Carthage. Iarba’s attempted murder of Aeneas fails. He reveals himself to be the African king and, at Dido’s command, is led away by Osmida. In spite of his inner doubts, Aeneas plucks up the courage to tell Dido of his decision to leave. Dido does not believe in his god-given destiny as a reason for his departure and accuses him of having betrayed her love.
Selene meets the freed Iarba and Araspe, his confidant, in the palace. She fears a new betrayal and accepts Araspe’s promise to protect Aeneas. Araspe confesses his love for her. Aeneas warns Dido of an uprising by the African peoples against Carthage, if she should carry out the death sentence on Iarba. Dido is apprehensive about her emotional and political helplessness after Aeneas’s departure. Dido tries again to persuade Aeneas to stay and provokes him by asking him to allow her either to marry Iarba or to take her own life. In front of Aeneas she agrees to marry the African king. After Aeneas has fled from the situation, Dido again refuses to accept Iarba. Dido remains impervious to Iarba’s threats and for a moment allows herself the hope that Aeneas will be jealous.
Iarba is defeated in a fight with Aeneas but Aeneas spares his life. Aeneas also leaves the unmasked turncoat Osmida to the punishment of his own pangs of conscience. Selene tries to persuade Aeneas to talk again with her sister Dido and confides her own feelings for him. Finally, Aeneas decides to take up once again his former life as a warrior and to travel on to Italy. Iarba has conquered Carthage and set it alight. When Dido tries to summon help from Aeneas she realizes that he has already gone. The warnings and words of advice from Selene and Araspe to Dido fall on deaf ears. Dido recollects her first husband Sicheo and asks him to put an end to her sorrows—Aeneas has avenged her betrayal of him. Dido turns down Iarba’s final proposal of marriage and resigns herself to death.
English translation: David Stevens
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HASSE, J.A.: Didone abbandonata [Opera] (Holzhause...