Haymarket Opera exhumes a melodic gem with Hasse’s “Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra”

June 27, 2023
Kangmin Justin Kim as Cleopatra and Lauren Decker as Mark Anthony in Johann Adolph Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Elliot Mandel

One advantage of having a smartly programmed Baroque opera company in Chicago is that it offers local audiences the opportunity to hear 18th-century composers beyond the usual suspects.

Such is the case with Haymarket Opera’s current production of Johann Adolph Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. This obscure work is a real find, packed with melodic riches worthy of Handel, and aficionados should hie to DePaul to catch one of the two remaining performances.

Hasse (1699-1783) was a hugely popular composer in his day, and a well-connected figure; Metastasio was a close friend and Hasse’s wife was the celebrated mezzo Faustina Bordoni, who created roles in several Handel opera premieres. Hasse’s reputation went into a precipitous decline after his death from which it has never recovered. His operas are occasionally mounted in Europe but Hasse performances are almost nonexistent in the U.S.

His music includes numerous concertos and sonatas for a variety of solo instruments. Yet most of Hasse’s prolific output was vocal music, including oratorios, cantatas, church music and an astounding 70 operas, which is nearly twice as many as Handel.

Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra is not an opera but a serenata—an intimate work for just two singers, meant to be performed in the salon or garden of a wealthy patron’s home. The scenario reflects the dilemma of the celebrated title lovers following their defeat by Octavian at the Battle of Actium. They reminisce about their first meeting and Cleopatra bewails the thought of becoming a Roman slave. Ultimately, they become resigned to their fate and, as they praise the era that harbored their love affair, the duo drink poison and expire in each other’s arms as the curtain falls.

While the libretto is awkward and the action static, the scenario serves as worthy scaffolding for Hasse’s superb music. From the vigorous Overture to the affecting final duet, the music is supremely crafted and well-contrasted with Mark Anthony and Cleopatra alternating da capo arias, spirited and melancholy by turns, with some drop-dead gorgeous cantabile moments.

Much of the pre-opening company PR and media hoohah focused, predictably, on the company casting a female singer for Mark Anthony and a male singer as Cleopatra. Yet, while trouser roles for women are hardly unusual in 18th-century opera, local audiences have experienced some dubious shows in recent years that changed the sex of opera characters to mine some perceived social-cultural-political benefit. In most cases, such attempts feel heavy-handed and do no favors for the composer’s work.

But Haymarket’s casting of Lauren Decker as Mark Anthony and Kangmin Justin Kim as Cleopatra has a genuine artistic and historic lineage. The work was premiered with the celebrated castrato Farinelli (born Carlo Broschi) taking the role of Cleopatra and the female contralto Vittoria Tesi Tramontini as Mark Anthony. 

So, the current casting is well anchored in the work’s performing tradition. More importantly, it works onstage vocally and dramatically, with Kim’s high countertenor juxtaposed against Decker’s low contralto, and both singers credible in their respective characters.

But the main takeaway from Saturday night’s performance at DePaul University’s Jarvis Opera Hall isn’t the gender-fluid casting but the extraordinarily high quality of Hasse’s music.  And with both principals serving up committed performances and largely inspired vocalism, Haymarket’s production provided outstanding advocacy for Hasse’s rich score.

An imposing presence, Decker was surprisingly believable as the lover-warrior Mark Anthony. Her contralto is likewise powerful, albeit with a rather narrow range of color, and the singer negotiated the coloratura with more caution than virtuosity. But Decker sang with consistent dedication and great sensitivity throughout, particularly in the latter arias and closing scene. 

Kim, a memorably deranged Nerone in John Eliot Gardiner’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in 2017, made an equally striking Cleopatra. Kim has a tendency to blast on fortissimos, and the long lines of some arias taxed his breath control at times. Yet his strong, attractive countertenor always fell gratefully on the ear and the singer handled the bravura arias with impressive agility and panache. 

Kim is a real stage animal and dramatically he brought theatrical energy, feminine poise and even impressive swordplay to Cleopatra. The singer made the Act 2 showpiece “A Dio trono” a virtual mad scene as the unhinged queen of Egypt oscillates between frenzied coloratura flights and desolate slow phrases.

Company general director Chase Hopkins has not been reticent about taking on stage duties in recent Haymarket productions—initially in small roles and in this show as stage director for the first time. His blocking was skillful and alert to the intimate nature of the piece, finding natural movements and ways for the two principals to interact in the long and potentially awkward da capo arias. The director also inserted three made-up nonspeaking roles into the scenario in order to “transform Hasse’s serenade into a lavish operatic event.” So much for historically authentic performance. 

Actually, adding a Roman soldier (fight director Jon Beal) and two ladies in waiting was a plausible way to vary and flesh out the stage action and worked for the most part. Yet in addition to adding a moment of (dauntingly realistic) swordplay between Cleopatra and the Roman guard, director Hopkins also has the two servants cavorting about with swords during the crucial duet at the end of Act 1. While dancers Kali Benz and Julie Brumfiel were graceful presences, their silly sword twirling only served to upstage the principals. (Likewise having the far-too-present servants poison themselves alongside Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.) Decker and Kim were perfectly capable of holding the audience’s attention without the unnecessary and intrusive distractions.

Conductor Craig Trompeter turned in one of his finest efforts on behalf of the company he founded 13 years ago. From the vital Overture to the concluding duet, he led a performance of fizzing vitality and lyric sensitivity, with ideally judged tempos. The dozen-member period-instrument orchestra played with consistent polish, cohesion and a nice, twangy burnished warmth. Even at 392 pitch, the music held no terrors for the strings, which sounded glorious throughout.

Stephanie Cluggish’s costumes were elegant and resourceful, and the sets (Wendy Waszut-Barrett), lighting (Brian Schneider) and wig and makeup (Megan Pirtle) were in the company’s best historically informed tradition.

Kudos to Haymarket Opera for resurrecting Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. The quality of Hasse’s music suggests that a reevaluation of the German composer is long overdue. Surely, among the other 69 operas, there is a masterpiece lurking somewhere. Let’s hope that Haymarket Opera brings it to us in a future season.

Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at DePaul University’s Jarvis Opera Hall. haymarketopera.org

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