Marie-Claude Chappuis Anima, Johannes Weisser Corpo, Gyula Orendt Tempo/Consiglio, Mark Milhofer Intelleto/ Piacere, Marcos Fink Mondo/Secondo Compagno di Piacere/Anima dannata, Staatsopernchor Berlin, Concerto Vocale, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902200.01 (2 CDs)
What price progress in the early music world? This new version of Emilio de Cavalieri’s seminal sacred opera falls both as to concept and performance a million miles short of Andrew Parrott’s 1988 recording of the 1589 Florentine intermedi. That famous entertainment was, of course, organised by Cavalieri, who also contributed music to it. His opera (we’ll leave debates about whether it is or is not an opera to others; it’s accepted as such by New Grove Opera) followed eleven years later, beating Peri and Caccini by a matter of months to go down in history as the first opera. Although musically ground-breaking, dramatically Rappresentatione belongs to the age-old tradition of the morality play that engages dialogue between opposing viewpoints, in this case the thorny question of the conflict between earthly pleasure and spiritual elevation. By definition, the subject offers contrast that was richly exploited by Cavalieri.
But not, I think, as richly as René Jacobs would have us believe. His recording stems from a Berlin Staatsoper production given in 2012. The realization is unashamedly pitched to the requirements of a modern opera house, with a rich tapestry of colourful instrumental sound, including bowed string instruments accompanying the singers, who largely appear to be all-purpose opera singers with wide vibratos; that goes for the chorus, too. Harmonies are at times wildly anachronistic, reminding me of Raymond Leppard’s Monteverdi and Cavalli arrangements for Glyndebourne in the 60s. If you want an example listen to the Damned Souls chorus in act 3, thrice repeated and given a realization by Jacobs that Berlioz would have been happy to own to. Additionally, much of the singing is far too lyrical, arioso rather than the new recitativo style, and none of the singers seem to understand the function of gorgie. Now, there is no intrinsic problem with all of this but for the fact that, not for the first time with Jacobs, it is presented under a veneer of HIP, his notes at least implying a scholarly approach. I’m afraid I find that duplicitous and suggest that readers of EMR leave well alone.