Le Banquet Celeste, Damien Guillon, alto, director
128:00 (2 CDs in a box)
Born in Venice around 1670 and trained as a chorister at St Mark’s, Antonio Caldara would become an exceptionally prolific composer, even by the standards of the Baroque, the author of output that included more than 75 operas and about 40 oratorios. The majority of the latter were sumptuous, large-scale works composed during the period Caldara was employed as vice-Kapellmeister to the Emperor Charles VI in Vienna (1716-1736). Maddalena ai Piedi di Cristo (Magdalene at the feet of Christ), however, was one of the earliest, having been given in Venice probably in 1697 or 1698.
Cast in two parts, the text of Maddalena is an allegory that follows the favourite Baroque conceit of presenting the central character with a moral dilemma, in this case, the choice between earthly pleasures (Amor Terreno), and heavenly redemption (Amor Celeste). The two characters are engaged throughout the oratorio in a battle for the soul of Mary Magdalene, who as a repentant sinner is torn by conflict. In addition to these protagonists, three further characters have a subsidiary role: Marta the righteous sister of Mary, a cynical Pharisee and Christ himself. While not without its weaknesses, Caldara’s music both captures the many moods and emotions of Mary and the adversarial battle between the two allegorical characters with a devotion and fervour not always evident in those of the composer’s later works I’ve heard. While many of the arias are scored for continuo only, accompanied arias and orchestral ritornellos demonstrate clearly Caldara’s skill as a contrapuntist (much put to use in Vienna, where the emperor was a lover of strict counterpoint) owes much to his supposed teacher, Legrenzi. Also notable are two arias including a cantabile obbligato role for cello, a reminder that it was Caldara’s own instrument.
The new recording faces stiff competition from a 1996 harmonia mundi set under the direction of René Jacobs, not surprisingly given that his set featured such luminaries as Maria Cristina Kiehr, Bernarda Fink and Andreas Scholl. It is one of the treasures of the early music catalogue. Happily, Le Banquet Celeste’s vitally performed and vividly projected set need have no fear of its august predecessor. From the outset Damien Guillon’s direction probes the oratorio’s inner spirit, the leisurely pace of some of his tempos suggesting that there is the odd aria where he perhaps loves the music a little too much, Maddalena’s heart-achingly lovely ‘In lagrime stemprato’ being a case in point. As it has to be, the performance is dominated by Emmanuelle de Negri’s immensely empathetic Maddalena. Her soprano is a lovely instrument, its fast vibrato only helping to create for its character an appropriate impression of vulnerability. In keeping with the remainder of the cast, her ornamentation in da capo repeats is invariably appropriate, though as usual the trill is largely a notable absentee from the proceedings. This is especially aggravating as de Negri shows (as in ‘Diletti, non più vanto) she can sing a trill, albeit a shallow one. As the adversaries fighting for her soul, both Benedetta Mazzucato (Amor Terreno), a true contralto, and alto and director Damien Guillon (Amor Celeste) are excellent, while Maïlys De Villoutrey’s sweetly expressive Marta is enchanting. Riccardo Novaro brings a powerful bass to the Pharisee, while the experienced tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen is a positive Christ. A word of praise, too, for the clear diction and insightful approach to the text brought by all the singers, not always gainsaid with allegorical librettos that today can seem arcane or even irrelevant. Less praiseworthy was the unnecessary decision to omit the da capo repeats of two arias.
While the new recording cannot and does not displace the Jacobs, it is worthy to stand alongside it. That in itself is high praise; we are lucky to have two such outstanding recordings of this lovely work.
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To make your choice even more difficult, harmonia mundi has re-released the benchmark René Jacobs recording (HMM 935221.22, 126:27, 2 CDs in a card tryptch).