Friday 17 November 2023

A Tale of Two Overtures: Hasse, Mozart, and the Habsburgs

First comes the Overture to Il Ruggiero, Johann Adolph Hasse’s – and Pietro Metastasio’s – final work from Orlando furioso. Originally commanded by Maria Theresa for the marriage of Maria Antonia/Marie Antoinette and the French Dauphin, the work's libretto was not completed in time, so it served instead for the 1771 marriage of the Empress's son Archduke Ferdinand Charles, Governor of the Duchy of Milan, to Maria Beatrice, daughter of Ercole (Hercules) III d’Este, Duke of Modena, and his estranged wife, Maria Teresa, Duchess of Massa and Princess of Carrara in her own right. As heiress to four further Italian territories, Maria Beatrice offered an advantageous match for the Habsburgs, and had originally been intended for one of Ferdinand's elder brothers, Archduke Peter Leopold (now Duke of Tuscany and later Emperor Leopold II). Ferdinand and Maria Beatrice had been engaged since childhood, the treaty thereby concluded recognising Ferdinand as Ercole's heir. (The French Revolutionary Wars would prevent Ferdinand from ever succeeding to Modena).


Notwithstanding the connection afforded by Ariosto’s time at the Este court in Ferrara, Ruggiero was held to show neither composer nor librettist at his best. Now gout-ridden and in his eighth decade, Maria Theresa’s old music-master and longstanding favourite composer was eclipsed by the success the following day of a second commissioned opera, from the sixteen-year-old Mozart and Giuseppe Parini: Ascanio in Alba. The two productions had three singers in common: the soprano Antonia Maria Girelli Aguilar, the castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, and the tenor Giuseppe Tibaldi. All were past the heights of their careers, yet seem to have fared better in Mozart than in Hasse. Set designs for both were provided by a team of three brothers: Bernardino, Fabrizio, and Giovanni Antonio Galliari. Hasse’s alleged remark, ‘Questo ragazzo ci farà dimenticar tutti’ (‘This boy will render us all forgotten’), rings with poetic if not incontrovertibly historical truth.

A new production of Ascanio will open next month in Frankfurt; I should be there to review it. Maybe one day an enterprising company or festival will offer the world a second opportunity for comparison and contrast.