Il Parnaso confuso (concert)



Christoph Willibald Gluck

Il parnaso confuso (UK premiere)
Azione teatrale in one act
Libretto by Pietro Metastasio

The Purcell Room, 22 June 2011

(programmed with Mozart concert arias and Symphony 16)


Apollo Helen Massey
Melpomene Cheryl Enever
Euterpe Lina Markeby
Erato Gillian McIlwraith                                                
Conductor Benjamin Bayl

with the Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments 
Oliver Webber, George Crawford violin; Sara Hubrich viola; Natasha Kraemer cello; Jonathan Moss double bass; Rachel Chaplin, Joel Raymond oboe; Nathaniel Harrison bassoon; Ursula Paludan Monberg, David Bentley horn; Benjamin Bayl fortepiano.




…a rewarding evening
Opera, September 2011


…a rewarding evening

Opera, September 2011

Il Parnaso confuso, a four-singer festa teatrale lasting about an hour, was the first of three pieces Gluck composed for the wedding celebrations of Joseph II and his second wife, Maria Josepha of Bavaria. (The others were given the opera Telemaco and the ballet Sémiramis).  It was given at Schönbrunn in 1765.  Four of Maria Theresa’s daughters (the eldest 22, the youngest 13) took the roles (Apollo and the three muses, Melpomene, Euterpe and Erato). Their 18-year old brother, later Leopold II, directed at the keyboard.  The court official Khevenhüller wrote in his diary that ‘all these noble persons distinguished themselves above all expectations and to universal wonder, both in singing (because of the natural beauty of their voices) and in deportment’.  Two attractive paintings by J.F. Greipel record the show.

Metastasio wrote the libretto.  Parnassus has been thrown into confusion by Apollo’s summons to the Muses to attend and grace the royal wedding: how can they produce something worthy at such short notice?  What about a Thetis and Lepeus, Melpomene suggests.  Old hat, says Erato. (Gluck has written a Tetide a few years earlier).  Then maybe a Hercules and Hebe? ‘Sterile’ is Erato’s rather daring one-word dismissal of that subject. (Gluck had composed a Nozze d’Ercole e di Elbe to celebrate Joseph’s earlier marriage; although Hercules and Hebe did bear children, Joseph remained childless).  Il Parnaso confuso is addressed to an educated audience.  Coming three years after Orfeo, it is not exactly another ‘reform’ opera, yet in one way it is: for Metastasio and Gluck join in questioning the formal conventions of opera seria by setting some very beautiful examples of its typical hit numbers – Melpomene’s ‘stormy sea’ simile aria, her lament, Euterpe’s pastoral with tibia obbligato, etc – within keen, naturalistic, critical dialogue.  Metastasio verses, Edward J Dent once wrote, should be ‘savoured like sips of an Imperial Tokay’. (Greipel depicted listeners to Il Parnaso with librettos open on their laps).  The Bampton singers didn’t really give us the full flavour.  Their Italian words were rather slackly sounded; Melpomene’s repeated ‘senza remi e senza vele’, for example, lacked the incisiveness of firm consonants.  It was a concert performance: the singers did not have their roles by heart but held scores in their hands – and rather too often addressed them rather than singing to us.  Apollo on the left, the three Muses on the right was the only hint of ‘staging’; lighting from above shone on noses and chins, leaving eyes, those vital communicators, in shadow.

But it was a rewarding evening: Bampton’s latest and choice addition to annals that also include performances of Romeo and Juliet, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff by other than their familiar composers. Gillian McIlwraith, Euterpe, was the most communicative and least score-bound of the singers.  Helen Massey as Apollo, Cheryl Enever as Melpomene, Lina Markeby as Erato had pleasing sound much of the time but lacked smoothly regulated emission; there were some high notes from which one flinched, and none of them had mastered a secure, distinct trill.  With unaffected poise, Benjamin Bayl led the small band (five strings, pairs of oboes and horns, bassoon) from a fortepiano.  Gluck’s instrumental inventions are captivating: pizzicato evocations of the lyre to which Erato sings,; an oboe (eloquently played by Rachel Chaplin) to represent Euterpe’s tibia; a sudden lively run from the bassoon.  No libretto was available, but there was a graceful, informative programme essay by Claire Seymour.


Andrew Porter



Metastasio and the Muses
Claire Seymour


Metastasio and the Muses

Christoph Willibald Gluck is all too easily assigned to a single musico-historical category – that of operatic reformer.  However, his works extend far beyond the ‘reform’ opera style with which he is most commonly associated, encompassing youthful Metastasian opera seria, numerous ballet scores and several delightful one-act festal serenatas, such as Il Parnaso confuso

As a long-time employee of the Hapsburg estate, Gluck was required to devise suitable entertainments for festive occasions, and Il Parnaso confuso was one of three works performed in the space of a single fortnight in 1765, to celebrate the second marriage of Archduke Joseph, later Emperor Joseph II, to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, at Schönbrunn.  That the composer managed to provide such a wonderfully euphonious and decorous work in the short time available is a testament to his professionalism and prodigious talent.

Forming a perfectly proportioned single act, Il Parnaso confuso is a ‘festa teatrale’ – the term commonly employed for works which formed part of a court festivity, typically to celebrate a name-day or marriage, and as is characteristic of such works the subject was taken from Classical mythology.  The action takes place on Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses.  Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy), Erato (Muse of Lyric Poetry) and Euterpe (Muse of Music) lazily luxuriate among the sacred groves until their nonchalant idling is interrupted by the troublesome arrival of the god, Apollo.  He shakes them abruptly from their lethargy: they are required to provide entertainment for the earthly marriage of Emperor Joseph and his “stella bavara” (star of Bavaria) and, moreover, their creative offerings are required by the very next morning. 

Anxious and alarmed by the hasty ingenuity demanded by this commission, the Muses’ self-doubt is complicated by their competitive drive to outshine each other.  However, they put aside petty jealousies and work together to devise a suitable entertainment, only for their happy and productive deliberations to be disturbed once again by Apollo’s frantic appearance: he announces that the marriage has in fact already taken place and demands their immediate presence at the celebration. 

Melpomene is particularly angered by the perceived slight that the mortals have inflicted; dismayed and morose, she threatens to lay down her inspired pen forever.  Fortunately, Apollo convinces them all that their own sincerity and gracious presence will be sufficient for them to take their place among the other Gods who are, at that moment, assembling for the nuptial revels.  Tranquillity is restored to the inhabitants of Parnassus, along with self-belief and artistic self-confidence.

At the first performance of Il Parnaso confuso, with the groom’s younger brother Leopold wielding the baton, the four solo roles were taken by four royal princesses – Maria Elisabeth, Maria Amalia, Maria Josepha and Maria Carolina – the youngest of whom was no more than thirteen years old.  The vocal writing is demanding, and the oldest of the royal quartet, Maria Elisabeth, in particular must have had real vocal talent for the sustained florid writing of Melpomene’s aria, ‘In un mar che non ha sponde’, requires much control, flexibility and stamina.  Gluck endeavoured to exploit the tonal colours of the instruments at his disposal – strings, horns, oboes and bassoons – as, for example, in the aria ‘Di questa cetra’ sung by Erato, where pizzicato upper strings, entrancing violas and a solo bassoon support a virtuosic vocal line.

The text by Metastasio (whom Gluck was subsequently, in the Preface to Alceste, to lambaste as the source of all of opera’s contemporary failings!), was also specially commissioned for the festivities, and is perhaps less sententious than the librettist’s solemn large-scale operatic offerings, the emotions and predicaments depicted being more human and real.  Indeed, the text is full of ‘in-jokes’ – as when the muses agonise over the short time available to put the piece together.  Metastasio also takes the opportunity to ridicule two earlier festa teatra by Gluck, Le nozze d’Ercole e d’Ebe and Tetide, the latter having been composed for the Joseph’s first marriage to Isabella of Parma in 1752.  Neither had employed a libretto by Metastasio and the Muses resentfully dismiss these works as old-fashioned and uninventive.  Despite this, and whatever his later feelings about the great poet’s work and contribution to operatic development, Gluck’s musical realisation of the text is fresh, melodious and inventive.  This delightful comic drama convincingly demonstrates how consummately Gluck had mastered the various genres of operatic expression: seria in the aria ‘In un mar’, buffa in the finale, and pastorale in the aria ‘Fin la dove l’aurora’, with its beautiful oboe solo. 

Il Parnaso confuso largely employs conventional seria forms (secco recitative and da capo arias), although there are some irregularities to the pattern, as when Apollo’s first entry abruptly interrupts the opening accompanied recitative.  Furthermore, two of the arias are not performed da capo.  And, although the da capo repeats are characterised by elaborate invention, even ornate extravagance, the direct, serene expression of the score perfectly encapsulates Gluck’s desire, expressed in the Alceste preface, to achieve a “grand simplicity”.

Il Parnaso confuso may, in the context of operatic history, be no more than an immensely pleasing curiosity, one which – written three years after Orfeo – ‘interrupted’ Gluck’s path to Reform.  However, Metastasio’s works and the opera seria genre were not immediately eclipsed by the new developments in style and form.  The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart grew up with the traditions of opera seria, and even as a precocious young boy could capture the lofty essence of the high-flown rhetorical style.

The concert aria Conservati fedele, for soprano and orchestra, is one of Mozart’s first extant essays in the Metastasian style.  An aria d’affetto – a love aria – it was composed by the nine-year-old prodigy in October 1765 while the Mozart family were residing at The Hague during a British-European tour.  It was slightly revised in January 1766, possibly for a performance for Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau, and was entered in Leopold Mozart’s catalogue of his young son’s works as No.2 of 15 Italian arias composed in The Hague and London.

Metastasio’s libretto, Artaserse, had been set to music by a number of composers, including Gluck, Hasse and Johann Christian Bach (Mozart had met the latter just a short time before in London).  The lyrics selected are the parting verses of Artaserse’s sister, Mandane, in Act 1, as she bids farewell to her lover Arbace.  Mozart’s choice of A Major for this graceful Andante aria perhaps foreshadows his later preference for this key as fitting for amorous outpourings and love duets; the short Allegretto central section of the da capo form is in the contrasting tonic minor.  After hearing this piece, Baron Grimm is reported to have predicted that “the boy would have an opera performed in an Italian theatre before he was twelve”.

Given the number of settings of lyrics from Artaserse made by Mozart before 1770, including O temerario Arbace!, we might speculate whether this libretto had become something of an undeclared focus for his opera seria ambitions.  Why this particular choice should have been made, though, and whether it was made in piecemeal fashion, setting by setting, or as an intended larger project is not clear.  Artaserse was one of the most popular librettos of its time, and it would have been natural for Mozart to have wished to make his mark in such a popular arena.  It is more probable, however, that the settings arose from piecemeal considerations, for the pre-1770 arias seem to have been randomly selected from the libretto and are for three different characters, Mandane, Artaserse and Artabano.  Moreover, it is difficult to link any particular singers known to Mozart at this time with these roles.

O temerario Arbace! is generally thought to have been composed around 1766.  Adding horns, oboes and bassoons to the string textures of Conservati fedele, Mozart sets text from Act 2 of the opera, in which Arbace laments his impetuousness and calls upon his father to be reconciled.  The opening accompanied recitative is dramatic and tense, characterised by frequent contrasts of tempo and dynamics, rhythmically enlivened by accented off-beats and brisk staccato semi-quavers, before calming into a triple-time Moderato in Bb Major.  Regular, graceful short-phrases give way to extended fioratura passages, chromatic inflections and expressive appoggiaturas beautifully enhancing the affekt

Mozart’s Symphony No.16, K.128, in C Major was one of several symphonies, sometimes known as the Salzburg symphonies, written in 1772 when the composer was sixteen years old.  The first movement, Allegro maestoso, is light and buoyant, characterised by triplet rhythms.  Although largely adopting the standard sonata form, there is already evidence of Mozart’s striking and fearless inventiveness; for example, the recapitulation in this first movement starts with a sequential modulation of the main theme which in effect continues the dense modulations of the short development section.  The oboes and horns are silent in the Andante grazioso, but return for the third movement, Allegro, a cheerful dance in rondo form.

Claire Seymour

Dr Claire Seymour is a musicologist and critic, and the author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion.