Niccolò Jommelli, as none but the most committed 18th-century opera nerd will be able to tell you, wrote Il Vologeso in 1766, when the 10-year-old Mozart was a year into his own composing career. That’s how come Il Vologeso qualified for Ian Page’s ongoing Mozart 250 project, putting the great composer’s work into the context of what was going on musically around him. This recording is of its belated UK premiere, an upbeat performance given in April 2016 by Page, his ensemble the Mozartists and an up-and-coming cast.
The 18th-century opera bingo card fills up in minutes: a person presumed dead returning in disguise, an obviously hopeless love triangle, an attempted murder and an interloper revealed – we get all these before the first aria. With that excitement dispensed with, Jommelli and his librettist, Mattia Verazi, string out a flimsy story of how emperor Lucio Vero tries to get Berenice to trade her hand in marriage for the life of the husband she inconveniently already has, the defeated King Vologeso. Ruthless yet clueless, the emperor spends much of the opera puzzling Berenice out. Why doesn’t she love me? Is it because I tried to feed her husband to a lion?
The music elevates this considerably. Jommelli may not have earned the place in music history accorded to Gluck, born the same year, but he was famous in his day, and the succession of winning arias in Il Vologeso shows why. Often the conversational singing that advances the action is accompanied by more instruments than the conventional bare minimum, which lends several passages a heightened sense of colour; this is especially true of the final act, where steadfast Berenice, sung in glowing tones by Gemma Summerfield, gets an imaginative almost-mad scene. The first aria for the imperial envoy Flavio – the diamond-bright soprano Jennifer France – has as its hook a distinctive descending chord progression that sounds entirely original in this context, yet is earwormingly familiar from the Bee Gees: Jommelli had an ear for a striking harmony, too.
The cast, also including Rachel Kelly in the title role and Angela Simkin as fierce Lucilla, rises to the demanding writing, with Stuart Jackson tackling Lucio Vero’s angry vocal pyrotechnics fearlessly. As Page gamely points out, the recording wasn’t intended for release, so there were no post-performance retakes. But it’s worth ignoring the occasional smudgy moment for this lively introduction to Jommelli’s music.