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Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774)

Il Vologeso

The Mozartists, Ian Page (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2016
Cadogan Hall, London, United Kingdom
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: September 2021
Total duration: 140 minutes 3 seconds

Cover artwork: Wall carving of an Assyrian lion.
© Alamy

Lucio Vero Stuart Jackson tenor
Vologeso Rachel Kelly mezzo-soprano
Berenice Gemma Summerfield soprano
Lucilla Angela Simkin mezzo-soprano
Flavio Jennifer France soprano
Aniceto Tom Verney countertenor

Set in Ephesus, on the western extremes of the Parthian Empire, Il Vologeso centres on Berenice, a woman caught between two men—the victorious Roman Lucio Vero, and Vologeso IV, King of the Parthians (thought dead, but recently returned after his defeat in battle). The excesses of the story inspire from Jommelli (an exact contemporary of Gluck and one of the most celebrated composers of his day) music which melds the lyricism of Italian opera with dramatically charged elements more commonly found in French opera of the day.

Niccolò Jommelli was born in Aversa, near Naples, on 10 September 1714, and died on 25 August 1774. Largely forgotten now, he was one of the most celebrated composers of his day, and during a career which spanned thirty-seven years he wrote some eighty operas as well as a great number of sacred works. He was seen as an important and progressive composer in combining the vocal melodiousness and lyricism of Italian opera with more elaborate and dramatically charged elements of French opera, and he played a significant role in increasing the contribution made by the orchestra in conveying the emotional and psychological subtext of the drama. On his death, the commentator Christian Friedrich Schubart wrote:

Jommelli, the creator of a quite new taste, and certainly one of the foremost musical geniuses who have ever lived … opened up a path all of his own. His extremely passionate spirit looks out from all his compositions: fiery imagination, comparable inventiveness, great harmonic understanding; a wealth of melodic passages, bold, powerfully effective modulations, an imitable instrumental accompaniment—these are the outstanding characteristics of his operas … If richness of thought, glittering fantasy, inexhaustible melody, heavenly harmony, deep understanding of all instruments, and particularly the full magical strength of the human voice—if great art affects entirely each chord of the human heart, if all these—yet combined with the sharpest understanding of musical poetry—constitute a musical genius, then in him Europe has lost its greatest composer.

Jommelli received his early musical training from Canon Muzzillo, the director of the cathedral choir in Aversa, before progressing to the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio (1725) and the Conservatorio Pietà dei Turchini (1728) in Naples. He was influenced by the composers still active in the city, particularly Hasse and Leo, and composed his first opera in 1737. In 1740 he wrote his first serious opera, Ricimero, rè di Goti, for Rome, and already his individual style seems to have been well formed—the writer Charles de Brosses, who saw the production, proclaimed that 'the force of the declamation, the variety of the harmony and the sublimity of the accompaniment created a sense of drama greater than the best French recitative or the most beautiful of Italian melody'.

During the 1740s Jommelli became established throughout Italy. In 1741 he moved to Bologna for the production of his first setting of Metastasio’s Ezio, and while there he studied with the celebrated teacher Padre Martini, whose students were also to include Josef Mysliveček, Johann Christian Bach and—briefly—the young Mozart. In 1743, on Hasse’s recommendation, Jommelli was appointed music director of the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice, and two of the oratorios he composed there—Isacco figura del Redentore and La Betulia liberata—were particularly well received and widely performed. In 1747 he left Venice for Rome, where he became joint music director of the Papal Chapel in 1749, but it was the commission to write two operas for the Burgtheater in Vienna that led to international recognition. The court poet Pietro Metastasio reported that Achille in Sciro, the first of these operas, far exceeded expectations, and claimed that Jommelli was unrivalled in his ability to 'seize the heart of the listener with his delicate and sensitive melody'.

Jommelli was now at the height of his fame, and following his success in Vienna he returned home to Italy. In 1753 a reworked version of his comic opera L’uccellatrice was presented by the Italian ‘opera buffa’ troupe during its controversial appearance in Paris, and Charles Burney recalled how in a performance of Attilio Regolo in London in 1754 one scene elicited such a powerful effect on the audience that it was encored, the only occasion within his memory when a scene of recitative had inspired such a response. In 1753 Jommelli turned down lucrative positions at Mannheim and Lisbon to accept an offer to become Kapellmeister to Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg.

The duchy of Württemberg was a hilly and largely wooded region that centred around the upper reaches of the River Neckar, on whose banks stood the university town of Tübingen and the capital city, Stuttgart. Karl Eugen (1728-1793) had been fourth in the line of succession when he was born, but three rapid deaths had led to his becoming Duke at the age of nine. The duchy was initially governed by a regency while Karl Eugen was brought up at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin—his education included harpsichord lessons from CPE Bach—but he assumed command when he turned sixteen.

One of his first acts as ruler was to reassemble the court orchestra—a document of payments in 1745 lists some thirty players—and he was soon recruiting leading singers from Italy, initially to sing in the Catholic court chapel but subsequently to take leading roles in operas. A new theatre in the Stuttgart palace was completed in 1750, the Schlosstheater at Ludwigsburg was extended and renovated in 1752, and in 1758 a thorough rebuilding of the theatre in the old Lusthaus in Stuttgart saw the existing decor replaced with a bell-shaped Italian-style auditorium.

Unlike Frederick the Great, though, Karl Eugen could not readily afford an extravagant programme of operas and building projects, and in 1752 he signed a six-year agreement to provide France with six thousand soldiers, to be trained and housed in Württemberg for deployment in the event of war. For this Louis XV paid 290,000 florins directly to the Duke, and this sum increased for each year of the treaty. This money, which Karl Eugen never officially declared, was pumped directly into opera productions and building projects, and the French failed to check how their money was being spent until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756. When an emissary was finally sent, all he found by way of an army was a single, fancily dressed palace guard. To save face Karl Eugen was forced to press six thousand untrained civilians into service, and when these men were sent into battle—ironically against Frederick the Great—in December 1757, fewer than a third of them survived. In this way the Stuttgart court’s opera performances in the 1750s were genuinely paid for in blood.

The creation of Il Vologeso
Duke Karl Eugen began introducing Jommelli’s operas to Stuttgart in 1750, and on 1 January 1754 the composer officially assumed the position of Ober-Kapellmeister for the Stuttgart court; the Duke reserved the right to choose the subject of an opera and the form it would take, but Jommelli had control over all other aspects. No expense was spared in securing the best practitioners, and Jommelli was given free rein to extend the ambition and dramatic possibilities of his operas. From the early 1760s these were performed more regularly at Ludwigsburg than at Stuttgart, and an extravagant new opera house (at the time one of the largest in Europe) at the rear of the Ludwigsburg palace was inaugurated in 1765. It was in this theatre that Il Vologeso was premièred on 11 February 1766.

The libretto was by Jommelli’s long-term collaborator Mattia Verazi (c1730-1794), and was adapted from Apostolo Zeno’s Lucio Vero, a version of which Jommelli had previously set for Milan in 1754. From the very beginning of his career Verazi had revealed a tendency to challenge and flout the conventions of Italian ‘opera seria’, with its formal and formulaic succession of so-called exit arias, and his texts frequently emphasised the horror and terror of a situation and built to heightened climaxes. His poetic lines too were often jagged and asymmetrical, in stark contrast to the florid and melodious librettos by Metastasio which had provided the basis of literally hundreds of operas across Europe during the previous forty years.

The cast were all Italian. The title role was sung by the castrato Pasquale Potenza, who had come to Stuttgart the previous year; the composer Dittersdorf wrote in his memoirs that the slow movement of one of his violin concertos was influenced by having heard Potenza sing in Bologna. Berenice was sung by Maria Masi Giura, who had been the company’s prima donna since 1758, and Lucio Vero by Jommelli’s principal tenor, Arcangelo Cortoni. He had been at Stuttgart since 1760, and was particularly renowned for his acting and his bravura singing; Jommelli subsequently wrote of him: 'He is one of the most skilful tenors presently making the rounds of the theatres in Italy, and under a diligent master who knows how to hold him to duty, he will always make a good appearance.'

The music
Jommelli’s music possesses a pungent dynamism which is quite unlike other operas being written in the 1760s. Closer to the sound world of Gluck than to that of Mozart or Johann Christian Bach, if anything it provides an operatic equivalent of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement which was sweeping across Europe in instrumental music, and its innovative unpredictability echoes and extends Verazi’s poetic reforms. In the late 1770s a correspondent wrote of Verazi that he 'is a man not of poetry, nor of letters, but of the theatre', and similar claims could be made for Jommelli. The musical landscape is still dominated by recitative and solo arias, and the vocal writing is undoubtedly challenging and virtuosic; in contrast to the established ‘opera seria’ prototype, however, the reprise of the first section of an aria is often truncated, and characters frequently remain on-stage after completing an aria.

One of the most remarkable features is Jommelli’s use of orchestrally accompanied recitative (rather than the standard continuo accompaniment of harpsichord and string bass) at certain dramatically crucial moments, and his harmonic language can be astonishingly ahead of its time, especially when conveying a character’s isolation or torment (as with the searing anguish of Lucilla’s accompanied recitative in the final act). Also particularly worthy of note are the finales of the first two acts, both of which are ensembles with diminishing numbers of participants, and the way the potentially two-dimensional character of the tyrant Lucio Vero is drawn—with his baleful cavatina in Act Two and especially his stunned horror at the end of the act—is remarkable.

Jommelli himself clearly held Il Vologeso in high regard. In a letter dated 17 October 1769 he wrote to the Italian poet Gaetano Martinelli:

Do not be surprised, my dear friend, but I also am more partial to the score of Vologeso than to that of Fetonte [his 1768 opera]. The affections and the passions in the former are better illustrated, of greater force, and more natural and realistic than in the latter … In comparison, then, Vologeso will always triumph over Fetonte. The latter is a fable; the former, historical. The former must touch and the latter can surprise. In the former the heart of the listener is all passion; in the latter, all admiration. Which of these two has the greater force in us? You, better than I, must know the answer.

Ian Page © 2021

The performance of Jommelli’s Il Vologeso presented on this recording took place at London’s Cadogan Hall on 28 April 2016. It was the work’s UK première, and was devised as a showcase for emerging young artists as part of The Mozartists’ ongoing Mozart 250 series.

The premise of Mozart 250 is that every year between 2015 and 2041 we travel back 250 years in time to explore the music that was being composed and performed in that particular year, thereby providing an overview and context for Mozart’s evolution and development as a composer. On paper, our programme planning for 2016 looked like being something of a challenge, for 1766 was conspicuously sparse in musical terms, due in part to the period of mourning following the death of Emperor Francis I. Had such composers as Haydn, Gluck, Johann Christian Bach and indeed the young Mozart himself been as prolific as usual that year, then we would probably never have got round to presenting Il Vologeso. As so often happens, though, the need to dig a little deeper led to felicitous results, and everyone involved in the performance—both on stage and in the audience—seemed to enjoy the opportunity to acquaint themselves with Jommelli’s very particular and intriguing sound-world.

Because our performance was envisaged as a one-off concert performance and not as a recording, I made a few judicious cuts (one tiny chorus, three complete arias and the B section and Dal segno of a further three arias); I did this in the knowledge that the complete opera is already available on CD (an excellent 1998 recording conducted by Frieder Bernius on the Orfeo label), and that in omitting a small number of the opera’s more repetitive or unconvincing parts we were perhaps increasing the overall quality of music and drama being presented. Also because we originally had no thoughts of releasing the performance as a CD, we had no patching session (a sort of safety net which would normally take place immediately after the performance to fix anything that had gone wrong).

As increasing numbers of concerts and recordings were cancelled during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, and as our period of enforced inactivity extended beyond a year, I gradually overcame my qualms about a handful of places that did not go as well in the performance as they had done in rehearsal, and came to feel that it was more important that this engrossing and highly individual work received a wider audience. I hope that the release of this recording will therefore be received in the spirit in which it is intended, and that you enjoy listening.

Ian Page © 2021

The opera is set in Ephesus, on the western extremes of the Parthian Empire, in c164 AD.

For the past three years Rome has been jointly ruled by two Emperors—Marco Aurelio and Lucio Vero. While Aurelio, the more senior and popular partner, remains in Rome, Vero has been leading the Roman army in their ongoing war against the advancing Parthians, whose king, Vologeso IV, has been defeated and—so everyone believes—killed. Following this victory Vero was expected to return to Rome, where he is due to marry Marco Aurelio’s daughter Lucilla. Instead, though, he has remained in Ephesus, keeping watch over the Parthian military threat and amorously pursuing Vologeso’s bride, Berenice.

Act One
Berenice continues to repel Lucio Vero’s unwelcome and inappropriate advances. At a banquet in Vero’s palace, a Parthian slave offers the Emperor a goblet of wine. Berenice immediately recognises the slave as her beloved Vologeso, who suddenly intercedes when Vero passes the drink to her; he prevents her from drinking it and admits that it was poisoned and intended for the Emperor, but only Berenice recognises her beloved’s true identity. He audaciously proclaims his defiance against the Romans (Aria, “Invan minacci”) before he is led off to be imprisoned. Vero turns his attentions back to Berenice, but is immediately thwarted when his attendant Aniceto interrupts with news that the Emperor’s fiancée Lucilla is arriving in Ephesus, along with Marco Aurelio’s ambassador, Flavio. Vero resolves to deflect their arrival by arranging some public games, and continues his attempts to conquer Berenice’s heart (Aria, “Luci belle”). Left alone, Berenice rejoices that Vologeso is still alive (Aria, “Se vive il mio bene”).

Lucilla and Flavio arrive in the town square. Lucilla is anxious and saddened that the Emperor has not arranged for them to be met, but he soon arrives. He briefly defends his behaviour before departing to organise the sporting festivities. Lucilla is convinced that Vero is incapable of betraying her (Aria, “Tutti di speme al core”), but Flavio is not surprised by her misguided optimism, for a faithful heart does not think to distrust anyone else (Aria, “Crede sol che a nuovi ardori”).

The scene changes to the public arena where the festive games are to take place. Vero explains to Berenice that this is where criminals are thrown to the lions, and a fanfare announces the start of proceedings. Vologeso is led into the arena, and castigates Berenice for faithlessly colluding in his death. Inadvertently calling him by his real name, she renounces his accusations by jumping into the arena beside him, and before Vero can prevent it the gates are opened to let the lion in. The Emperor is forced either to expose his love for Berenice or to watch her die. He throws his sword to Vologeso and implores him to kill the lion with it. Lucilla realises that the rumours are indeed true, and that she has been betrayed by Vero. Having slain the lion, Vologeso nobly returns Vero’s sword and gives himself up; now that Berenice has shown herself to be faithful he can happily face execution. Vero is urged to repay and return Lucilla’s devotion and to release the captive Parthians, but he remains silent (Quartet, “Quel silenzio?”).

Act Two
Lucio Vero has summoned Vologeso, and now asks Aniceto to instruct Lucilla to return to Rome. Aniceto is grateful to be entrusted with the task, particularly as he himself has romantic designs on Lucilla, and assures Vero that he can rely on him (Aria, “So ben comprenderti”). Vero now offers Vologeso his freedom and his return to the Parthian throne if he will give up Berenice, but when Vologeso refuses he furiously sends him back to his cell to await sentence (Aria, “Sei tra’ ceppi”). When Berenice discovers Vologeso still in chains she offers to plead on his behalf to Vero, but Vologeso asserts that this would be to betray him, and assures her that he will die happily and at peace if she continues to scorn and reject the Emperor (Aria, “Cara, deh serbami”).

Berenice is now summoned by Vero, who tells her that she must choose between his hand in marriage or Vologeso’s head. Desperate, she tells him that if he demands her heart she will give it to him (Aria, “Tu chiedi il mio core”). Close at last to fulfilling his desires, Vero can feel no satisfaction at the prospect if Berenice continues to hate him (Cavatina, “Che farò?”).

Meanwhile, Lucilla tells Flavio that Vero has demanded that they return to Rome straightaway. She insists on hearing it from the Emperor’s own lips, though, and confronts him. Vero admits unequivocally that he is in love with Berenice, but when Lucilla absolves him he suggests that she too might not be faithful. Lucilla is furious at such an unfounded allegation, and resolves to leave (Aria, “Partirò, se vuoi così”). Vero then informs Vologeso that Berenice has secured his life and freedom by offering Vero her heart; Berenice confirms that this is what they agreed, but informs the Emperor that to gain her heart he will have to rip it from her breast. Vero is livid and puts her in chains, but Berenice and Vologeso remain fearless and steadfast (Trio, “Se fida m’adora”).

Act Three
Flavio informs Lucilla that the Roman troops are poised to help him thwart Vero and reinstate Vologeso on the Parthian throne. Lucilla bids farewell to the Emperor, who wishes her a safe journey and then laments the anguish that Berenice causes him (Aria, “Uscir vorrei d’affanno”). Lucilla is heartbroken.

Flavio and Roman soldiers break into Vologeso’s cell and help him to escape. Meanwhile Aniceto has supervised Vero’s final attempt to win Berenice. He stages a ghostly, macabre dumb show, at the height of which Berenice is presented with a covered object, supposedly Vologeso’s severed head (Aria, “Ombra, che pallida fai”). Even then she rejects Lucio’s advances, and as she readies herself to join her beloved in death, Vologeso himself storms in with Flavio and Roman officers. Vero must either die or restore Vologeso and Berenice to their kingdom, return to Rome and marry Lucilla; he chooses the latter option. Everyone is finally happy, except perhaps for Aniceto, who must now abandon his own feelings for Lucilla (Finale, “Al mare invitto”).

Ian Page © 2021

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