Ian Page looks forward to the UK première of Hasse’s exquisite opera Piramo e Tisbe at Cadogan Hall on 28 March:
When I was programming our retrospective of the year 1768, which took place at Wigmore Hall in January 2018, I included an aria from the tragic intermezzo Piramo e Tisbe by Johann Adolph Hasse. Given that this was Hasse’s penultimate opera, and that he was one of the foremost opera composers of the period immediately preceding Mozart, I was happy to do so, aware that this would be one of my last opportunities to include any of Hasse’s music within MOZART 250. It proved extremely easy to find a suitably attractive aria, but it was only when we came to rehearse and perform it that we were collectively ambushed by the sheer quality, depth and beauty of the music.
Even then, it was several months before the idea to perform the complete opera began to emerge, by which time we were too late to include it in its exact place within MOZART 250 – the work was premièred in the autumn of 1768 so technically we should have performed it last autumn. I do hope, though, that none of the people who attend our performance at the end of this month will mind that we are presenting the UK première of this delightful opera a few months after the 250th anniversary of its composition and first performance.
The more I have worked on this opera the more I have come to love and admire it. Among its ten arias, three duets and two orchestral numbers there is not a weak link, and Hasse’s music consistently soars to levels of lyricism and expression that place it above the vast majority of mid-eighteenth-century operas. The plot, which was so memorably lampooned in Shakespeare’s (and Britten’s) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, requires a cast of just three, and this in itself places a responsibility on the music to convey a lot of the psychological narrative of the drama.
Hasse had already written sixty operas by the time he composed Piramo e Tisbe, and he had already established a reputation which prompted Leopold Mozart to describe him as “the father of music”, but this piece differs significantly from his previous works, incorporating and developing Gluck’s famous operatic reforms of the 1760s. In this opera there is no empty virtuosity, no redundant repetition, and the music is imbued with a sincerity and directness of utterance which consistently serves and enhances the action.
So why is this opera so little known, and why has it never been performed in this country before? I genuinely don’t know the answer to these questions, but I hope that our performance on 28 March will win the work many new admirers. We have assembled an outstanding cast of young singers, who are all similarly bowled over by the quality of the score. Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath, who sang in last year’s retrospective concert, sings the role of Thisbe, and Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth, a former member of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Programme, makes her company début in the role of Pyramus. Thisbe’s father, whose opposition to the union of the young lovers provokes the tragedy, is played by tenor Gwilym Bowen, who along with Chiara recently became a Classical Opera Associate Artist.
The twelve-year-old Mozart was in Vienna for virtually the whole of 1768, and the two composers at opposite ends of their careers became good friends. Whether or not Mozart heard Piramo e Tisbe, the work has an elegance, beauty and pathos which we might nowadays describe as quintessentially Mozartian.