NOTiccolò Jommelli, as none other than the most committed 18th-century opera nerd can tell you, wrote Il Vologeso in 1766, as 10-year-old Mozart began his own career as a composer a year ago. This is how Il Vologeso qualified for Ian Page’s ongoing Mozart 250 project, placing the great composer’s work in the context of what was happening musically around him. This recording is of its late premiere in the UK, an upbeat performance given in April 2016 by Page, his ensemble the Mozartists and a rising cast.
The 18th-century opera bingo card fills up in minutes: a presumed dead person returning in disguise, an obviously desperate love triangle, attempted murder, and an intruder revealed – we get it all before the first aria. Without that excitement, Jommelli and his librettist, Mattia Verazi, recount how Emperor Lucio Vero tries to get Berenice to exchange his hand in marriage for the life of the husband she already has, the defeated King Vologeso. Merciless but ignorant, the emperor spends a large part of the opera confusing Berenice. Why doesn’t she love me? Is it because I tried to feed her husband a lion?
Music elevates that considerably. Jommelli may not have earned the place in musical history bestowed on Gluck, born that same year, but he was famous in his day, and the string of winning tunes in Il Vologeso shows why. Often the conversational song that moves the action forward is accompanied by more instruments than the conventional bare minimum, giving several passages a keen sense of color; this is especially true of the final act, where Farm Berenice, sung in brilliant tones by Gemma Summerfield, gets an imaginative, almost insane scene. Imperial Envoy Flavio’s first aria – diamond-shining soprano Jennifer France – hooks up with a distinctive descending chord progression that sounds quite original in this context, but yet is familiarly known to the Bee Gees: Jommelli had ear for a striking sound. harmony too.
The cast, also including Rachel Kelly in the title role and Angela Simkin as the ferocious Lucilla, rise to demanding writing, with Stuart Jackson fearlessly tackling Lucio Vero’s angry vocal pyrotechnics. As Page gamely points out, the recording was not meant to be released, so there were no covers after the performance. But it’s worth ignoring the occasional smudge moments for this lively introduction to Jommelli’s music.