Stradella’s Forza dell’amor paterno in Birmingham

Alessandro Stradella’s La forza dell’amor paterna, disinterred by the Barber Opera for its first outing in modern times at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre, is a good example of early Italian baroque, with its fluent mixture of coloratura aria, arioso and duet. But, dramatically, it creates a problem of interpretation. Its central themes, a father’s dilemma, whether to sacrifice his marriage when his son falls for his betrothed, and whether filial duty requires resistance to such passion, suggest an earnest piece about relationships and moral responsibilities. Yet the serious tone is softened by interludes of comic interplay, particularly emanating from the minor characters. Is it then to be given as a (moving) exploration of the human condition, or rather as an amusing and, in places, satirical exposure of human frailty? The absence of a clear answer in Christopher Cowell’s production at first unsettled me but, by the end, won me over because it helped to underpin the moral ambiguity of the drama.

A predominantly young, though not inexperienced, cast of singers responded enthusiastically to the challenge of the work. In the central triangle of characters, the fiancée, Galina Averina, displayed an attractive lyrical soprano and characterised convincingly the tribulations of being caught between love and duty. As her would-be lover, Lara Marie Müller was suitably volatile, emotionally, though vocally was a little short on cantabile. Paul Hopwood as the father/king had the intensity necessary for the part, but his portrayal was somewhat monochrome. All the peripheral roles were well performed. Joanna Harries’ warm mezzo captured perfectly the love-deprived miseries of Lucinda which were melodiously soothed by her sometime lover, counter-tenor Francis Cush. Although he had only a small role Andy Shen Liu, the other counter tenor, was little short of sensational, combining brilliant sounds with pert stage antics. Helen Stanley was effective as the blowsy Rubia and there were strong contributions from baritone Brendan Collins and bass Giuseppe Pellingra.

Andrew Kirkman, the Barber Professor of Music at Birmingham University, conducting the appropriately named Musical and Amicable Society Orchestra provided sensitive support and is to be congratulated on the imaginative decision to revive this forgotten opera. Two aspects to that decision were, nevertheless, perhaps not ideal. First, the performance was a little too long; some judicious cutting of the subplots would have been beneficial. Secondly, it was given in an English translation (by Christopher Cowell) which was too literary and which did not always accord sufficiently with the musical phrasing, a problem arising from the fact that most English words, unlike Italian, have the stress on the first syllable.