GLUCK Il Trionfo di Clelia
‘Lars Porsena of Clusium / By the Nine Gods he swore / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more.’ Does anyone read Macaulay nowadays? I hope so; certainly, familiarity with the first of the Lays of Ancient Rome would be helpful as a background to following the tortuous plot of this opera: for Orazio is Horatius, who defended the bridge over the Tiber, Tarquinio is the ‘false Sextus’ who raped Lucretia and, of course, Porsenna is Lars Porsena himself, king of the Etruscans.
Gluck was engaged on Orfeo ed Euridice, the first of his ‘reform’ operas, when he was commissioned to compose an opera for the opening of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. The subject was to be Il trionfo di Clelia by Metastasio, which had only recently been set by Hasse; Gluck would have preferred the librettist’s earlier L’Olimpiade but the impresario in Bologna wanted to make the most of the greater opportunities for scenic splendour that Clelia would provide. The premiere on May 14, 1763, was a great success: it was followed by 27 more performances.
The set-up is typically Metastasian: three acts, six royal or noble characters, a succession of recitatives and arias. There is one duet, for the lovers Clelia and Orazio, and a final brief ‘coro’ in praise of Porsenna. All very old-fashioned, you might think, and indeed there is much secco recitative and plenty of coloratura. But Gluck is looking forwards as well as back, with several accompagnato recitatives and rich scoring: pairs of flutes, oboes, horns, trumpets and timpani, with an obbligato bassoon at one point and divided violas at another. His Achilles heel, as so often, is the plodding bass-line and the repeated notes in the upper parts; but in a performance as splendid as this you hardly notice.
The parts of Orazio and Tarquinio were written for castratos. Mary-Ellen Nesi and Irini Karaianni are familiar from Dabringhaus und Grimm’s Handel recordings. Both deal expertly with the bravura passages. As the villain of the piece, Tarquinio doesn’t show much tenderness. Orazio does, though, and Nesi’s singing of the slow ‘Saper ti basti’ is wondrous: her appealing mezzo combined with soft horns and strings makes you realise why Gluck was so admired in the 18th century for his evocation of classical antiquity. Hélène Le Corre’s soprano, bright but never shrill, is a perfect foil. In an opera dominated by soprano pitch, the tenor of Vassilis Kavayas makes a welcome contrast and he is a match for Le Corre in ear-tickling agility. All the characters deliver the recitatives in exemplary style. The conducting and the playing are first-rate. A libretto is included but no translation.