Bassani: Giona, Oratorio a 5 voci

Ensemble “Les Nations”, Maria Luisa Baldassari
88:48 (2 CDs in a jewel case)
Tactus TC 640290

Bassani’s Oratorio – composed for Lent in Ferrara when operas were forbidden – is a far cry from the both the oratorios of Carissimi and the operas of Cavalli, and closer in feel to Vivaldi or even early Handel. Da capo arias interspersed with recitatives slow what pace there might have been to what in the Parte Prima is a slow-moving, moralising opera substitute rather than a moving, dramatic, Biblically based narrative. A small organ and harpsichord play continuo, with a constant 8’ ‘cello line, and the violone player also plays the lirone (an instrument that reached its heyday in the early years of the seventeenth century – is there evidence for its use in music this late?), though I could not distinguish it. The upper strings in the five-part ensemble of single strings play in a modern style, with minimal regard for any historically informed practice. Their tuning – which may just be a failure to absorb the temperament of the keyboard instruments – feels at considerable variance with what we might expect. The ‘cello player is better: his free-ranging, melodic part in Non si fide di brieve sereno was a delight.

The singers – the male voices are the best – have some good moments, especially the Testo. But the female voices – there is a duet, and fine echo effects – who have the ungracious roles of Hope and Obedience – are less assured, and too wobbly for me. The narrative hots up in the Parte Seconda, where the storm descends and the helmsman (Atrebate) describes the ship about to founder, when Jonah wakes, rubbing sleep from his eyes. But curiously the whole effect seems bloodless and dull. Partly this is because the music isn’t up to much – there is too much Vivaldian tonic/dominant in endless D major: oh for Handel’s melodic inventiveness! – but partly because there is no real drive, no real dramatic climax – Jonah is just commended for his patience and obedience – and the singers don’t seem able to bring the characters they represent to life.

The recording and production doesn’t help either: there is no libretto with the liner notes: you have to go on line for that; but I couldn’t get through, and the Facebook page has comments from those who had the same experience. In the end, Tactus made contact with me, and provided the text (Italian only, for those who need a translation) and the liner notes. But there was nothing about the performance or style, and no information on the scoring or pitch or continuo decisions, so it is short on information that might help you evaluate the serious quality of this performance.

I don’t imagine there is another recording of this oratorio, but I doubt if this production will commend it to you, unless you are an enthusiast for this particular period and style: but I cannot recommend it as a performance.

David Stancliffe