Recorded back in 1986, and reissued several times in different forms, including a new reissue, Hasse’s Cleofide is a very odd bird. At nearly four hours, this opera features only high voices: sopranos and counter-tenors. This gives a strange tone to the work; one is used to hearing a variety of voices in Handel’s operas, which are contemporary with Cleofide. But in Cleofide it seems as though something is missing.
Robert Hugill reviewed a single disc of excerpts of this opera in 2009 ( review). I agree with Robert’s comments about the quality of the cast, and the variety of the singers. But with nearly four hours of music, this opera is certainly taxing. While it contains much fine music, and many attractive arias, the recitatives are even more uninteresting than usual. When watching an opera on DVD, the recitatives are important, but for recordings, I find them to be relatively useless and distracting. In addition, some of them are overly long, making for a tough listen.
So, the solution is to simply not listen to them. After ripping the CDs, I removed the recitatives from the recording’s playlist, and was down to a mere 2 hours and 46 minutes, a nice amount of time to listen to this music. There are 33 recitatives for a total of 1 hour and 4 minutes. With this approach, what was a marathon becomes an evening’s listen, and an inviting one indeed.
One can easily appreciate this early William Christie recording with Capella Coloniensis, a group originally formed in 1954 (!) to perform baroque works in historically informed performances. Christie masters this orchestra well, and the playing is impeccable. The casting is excellent, including some of the great singers of the time: Emma Kirkby, in her prime, Agnes Mellon, Dominique Visse and David Cordier, among others. There is even a male soprano, Randall K. Wong, a rare type of singer indeed.
The music is delightful. And some of the arias are as long as nine minutes, with some of the longer arias near the end of the work. The singers perform very well, as do the orchestra, and the recording itself is very clean and precise. The only odd thing about it is the fact, as I mentioned earlier, that only sopranos and counter-tenors sing in this work. After a while, I longed to hear a tenor or bass, just for variety.
One can compare this opera to Handel’s oratorios and operas; Cleofide is from 1731, and Handel, around that time, had already written such great operas as Rinaldo, Agrippina, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. So this type of music was well known, and Hasse was clearly influenced by it. Hasse wrote several dozen operas, and very few are available on disc today. This is a shame, because Cleofide shows that Hasse was a composer to reckon with; not quite up to Handel, but not far away.
If you like Handel’s operas, and want to discover an unjustly forgotten composer, Cleofide is worth checking out. It is an entertaining opera - though long; just ignore the recitatives - full of delightful, happy music, performed by excellent musicians and soloists.
-- Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: C7080
Composer: Johann Adolf Hasse
Conductor: William Christie
Orchestra/Ensemble: Cappella Coloniensis
Performer: Agnès Mellon, David Cordier, Derek Lee Ragin, Dominique Visse, Emma Kirkby, Randall K Wong