The Heirs of Tantalus: A Pasticcio of Blood and Song

United StatesUnited States Handel, Monteverdi, A. Scarlatti: The Heirs of Tantalus: The Broad Street Ballroom, New York, 22.2.2013. (SSM)

Jessica Gould: Agrippina and Poppea
José Lemos: Nero and Ottone
Jory Vinikour: Harpsichord
Judith Hawking: Narrator, Chorus, Clytemnestra
Ben Leasure: Narrator, Orestes
Steven Rattazzi: Narrator, Suetonius
Members of The Sebastians Chamber Orchestra
Erica Gould: Stage Direction

The pasticcio is the musical equivalent of a culinary goulash: add some of your old arias, steal a few more from your contemporaries, compose an overture (or just take an old sinfonia and call it an overture), package it and you have a new opera ready for a world premiere. From Monteverdi’s time until copyright laws came into effect, this process was often a way for a composer to complete a work and beat a deadline. Many of Handel’s pasticcios can be sourced to his own earlier works. Vivaldi’s underrated Bajazet contains arias from Hasse, Giacomelli and Broschi. Anyone who saw the Metropolitan Opera’s brilliant pasticcio The Enchanted Island, which consisted of arias from multiple Baroque composers, knows that a well-chosen potpourri of arias makes for a fine night at the opera.

The scope of this pasticcio was sensibly judged, with no attempt to match the scale of the Met’s production. The two soloists and the instrumentalists were on a small stage, while the three actors moved about the aisles and often leaned against a spotlighted column. This required some audience swiveling, but the cast enunciated clearly most of the time so that it was not always necessary to face them. With the actors serving as narrators and Roman personages – the equivalent of an operatic recitative – a tale was told of bloody and perverse characters and events from the House of Atreus to Nero’s Palace.

From the opening overture to the final duet with its typical Baroque turnaround in mood from torment and loss to the words “Alas, in this mortal life/the greatest happiness a heart can expect/is to be free from care,” the audience was treated to an operatic episode of I, Claudius – gruesome yet amusing at the same time.

Handel’s Agrippina and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea are, appropriately, the main sources for the arias. Ottone’s opening aria E pur io torno was rendered by countertenor José Lemos in a shaded and expressive interpretation that went from hope and comfort to despair and emptiness within minutes. Jessica Gould’s canorous voice comfortably negotiated the jaunty runs of the aria Non ho cor che per amarti. Monteverdi’s Pur ti miro was sung meltingly by the duet. While not strictly a chaconne, which carries the bass line from beginning to end, this aria derives its pathos from the chaconne’s tempo and rhythm. Come nube was the evening’s highlight, with a text in which Handel beautifully tone paints the significant words “flies” “wind” “fire” and “cold.”

Mention should be given to the instrumentalists and in particular to oboist Meg Owens who deservedly took the seat normally reserved for the concert mistress.

The venue was a real find both in terms of acoustics and style. Folding chairs were set up in the center of what used to be a bank’s public space, a circular area in the style of the Pantheon’s interior. Tiled Roman columns added to the illusion that we were in a building from the Roman era.

A great deal of time and thought must have been spent on this production. Hopefully it will be staged again and for a longer period than one night. This

Stan Metzger