The Power of Paternal Love

Behind this year's Barber Opera.

Alessandro Stradella's 1678 The Power of Paternal Love

La forza dell’amor paterno was composed for the Teatro del Falcone in Genoa for its 1678-9 season, where it was performed no fewer than fifteen times and enjoyed significant success. Its composer, Stradella, wrote upwards of 309 works for both voices and instruments but was best known for his dramatic works including this one. This year’s Barber Opera is its English translation by Christopher Cowell, ‘The Power of Paternal Love’ and will be the first performance since this run in the 17th century, also making it the UK premiere.

The plot is based on the betrothal of a young princess, Stratonica, to an aged king, Seleuco. The king’s own son, Antioco, has already fallen for his father’s fiancé and what follows is series of love-induced ailments that, in true dramatic fashion, seem destined to culminate in his death. His father, in the ultimate act of paternal love, breaks off his engagement and allows his son and the similarly enamoured Stratonica to marry. The story is based on real Greek characters from 299 BC. Seleuces I Nicator King of the Seleucid Empire married Stratonice, daughter of Demetrius the King of Bactria, when he was 42 and she 17 then handed her over to his son Antiochus upon learning her was dying of love sickness for his mother-in law.

Perhaps a controversial storyline by modern standards, Professor Andrew Kirkman explains how this was the height of entertainment at the time of the opera’s first performance and why the reputation of its composer is an equal match: “This work is from the late 17th century and only resurfaced in 1927. This was the kind of subject matter that would have been entertaining to people, like the equivalent of whatever the next big TV show is for us. There would be aristocracy attending this performance and would be seeing something revolving around figures they could probably identify with, so we’re seeing a little bit of fun poked at them as well. The composer, Stradella, got himself into deep water by having affairs with the wives of his various patrons, so he was certainly familiar with the higher echelons of society and kind of biting the hand that fed him, you might say. It all caught up with him in a pretty messy way. He eventually got attacked by two assailants and did recover but about five years later was knifed in the back again and died at the age of 42!”

He also explains why he thinks the piece has a lot to offer musically and he hopes audiences will leave smiling: “This is a piece that comes from a time before the standard Baroque opera set up was really solidified so it’s quite a varied approach in terms of style and genre. I think that actually makes it a lot more approachable really especially for people who are not used to an opera format. It’s a period instrument ensembled with harpsichord and strings. I think there’ll be a lot of happy customers hearing really fabulously tuneful pieces of music. You could easily go out whistling the tunes.”

Tickets to see the ‘The Power of Paternal Love’, running 12-15 April at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham and enabled by the generosity and support of the Henry Barber Trust.