Talented young singers spark the fireworks in Hasse’s mundane “Piramo e Tisbe”

Fri Mar 23, 2018 at 12:22 pm
Kelley Curtin and Kristin Gornstein in Haase's "Piramo e Tisbe," presented by the Little Opera Theatre of NY. Photo: Tina Buckman

Kelly Curtin and Kristin Gornstein in Haase’s “Piramo e Tisbe,” presented by the Little Opera Theatre of NY. Photo: Tina Buckman

Johann Adolf Hasse in his time (1699-1783) was a leading composer of operas, known for the quantity of his output and his popularity. But outside of musicological circles, he’s essentially a nonentity on today’s classical music scene.

That allowed for the curious situation Thursday night, when the Little Opera Theatre of NY mounted this city’s premiere performance of Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. The composer gave this  1768 work the odd subtitle of “intermezzo tragico,” writing to a friend, “I place it among the best works I have written.”

The centuries have not been kind to that opinion. Despite truly stellar efforts by soprano Kelly Curtin as Tisbe and mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein as Piramo, the production could not make the opera into something it is not.

The characters are likely more familiar as Pyramus and Thisbe, encountered as the comic play within the play in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and translated to Britten’s operatic version of the Bard.

But the original story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is tragic, and Hasse wrote his opera in that spirit, in a compact two acts. One was puzzled as to just what type of other drama this was supposed to be an intermezzo for, and if audiences had found this a respite of any kind.

This is, of course, forbidden love between a young man and young woman from rival families that ends, via misunderstanding and bad timing, in death. Lots of death here—not only those of the leads but also of Tisbe’s father Padre, sung by tenor Glenn Seven Allen (replacing the scheduled Brian Downen)—with the opera sentimentalizing tragedy to near luridness.

This was very 18th century, as was the way the overture set a frame of artifice around the performance. That was like Handel, but without the depth of human feeling.

Kelly Curtin’s voice had a lovely fullness all evening, and her intonation and enunciation were excellent. In Act II, the part has some spectacular high notes, which she hit with precision and power, befitting an experienced Queen of the Night. More impressive than technique, though, was her musicality, shaping phrases so the music clearly carried her thoughts, and the character’s internal drama.

Gornstein, who was naturally comfortable and believable in the trouser role, equaled Curtin in this. Like the soprano, she had the agility for the sixteenth-note runs and turns, and that served a fine expression throughout. It was a pleasure to witness these two musicians bringing these characters to life.

But there’s not enough life in the characters, as delivered by the music and Marco Coltellini’s libretto, to make the whole thing work. And the music spends a lot of time showing off the voices while not adding anything in particular to the story, which perhaps accounts for Hasse’s lack of stature.

This is also a one-act opera with a two-act form and duration. Act I presents the lovers and Padre’s proscription against their relationship. Act II has them fleeing to a rendezvous in the desert. They don’t find one another, and Tisbe is attacked by Padre’s men (she fights them off with a little opera-fu), which spills some blood. Piramo finds the blood and then kills himself in sorrow, only to be found by Tisbe, who kills herself. Tisbe is then found by Padre, who then kills himself.

While Act I intersperses arias with duets and a couple recitatives, Act II is all arias, one after another. With no contrast between them, there are too many notes for too little gain. Hasse’s craft was solid on these terms, but the opera has no invention—once a four-bar phrase had gone by, it was easy to predict how the next four bars would sound. This made Act II dramatically leaden and musically dull.

The staging was set by director Philip Shneidman in what the program declared was “Persia, then and now,” though Piramo’s thermal vest and the automatic weapons were very much of the now.

The subbing tenor Allen was an odd fit, his phrasing blunt as opposed to the fine legato of Curtin and Gornstein. In Act I he seemed to be in a different opera—there was a violence to his characterization that tended to bury his music. He was much more at home in the tragic circumstances in the finale, and the force of his singing was a good contrast to the many long, major key lines that had come before.

Allen was a bit out of control rhythmically though, and conductor Elliot Figg, at the harpsichord, could not quite reign him in. Nor could he get enough out of New Vintage Baroque, the pit band. This young, period instrument ensemble has impressed in the past, but augmented by additional players, they sounded wan and sometimes strangled at the start of the Overture.

The musicians caught their wind during Tisbe’s first aria, but the strings often struggled with their intonation, and deferred too much of the pulse to the singers. But then Curtin and Gornstein really were the show.

Piramo e Tisbe continues through Sunday, March 25, with Sarah Nelson Craft and Summer Hassan alternating as Piramo and Tisbe. lotny.org

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