Cavalli: Miracolo d’amore

Raquel Andueza soprano, Xavier Sabata countertenor, La Galania
67:31
Anima Corpo AEC 006
Duets & Arias from La Calisto, Elena, L’Egisto, Eliogabalo, ’Erismena, Giasone, Gli amori d’Apollo di Dafne, LL’Ormindo, Pompeo magno & La Rosinda

Recitals devoted to extracts from Cavalli operas are comparative rarities, and I can call only one other recent example to mind, a Glossa CD with La Venexiana. It is significant and a measure of the rich diversity to be found in Cavalli’s substantial body of operas – there are 33 – that there is no overlapping of repertoire with this new disc featuring Spanish artists. However, as we will see, there are similarities between the two in other respects.

As anyone who has seen any Cavalli opera knows full well, whatever the background story they are dominated by one topic – love, ‘miracolo d’amore’. Or perhaps we might more pithily say, sex, exploited by Venetian 17th-century opera in general and by Cavalli in particular with an unashamed abandon that it would take the 20th century to emulate, but then usually in a far less subtle manner. So among these duets and arias we find love with all disparate variants: lustful desire (‘O mio cor’ from act 1 of Giasone, 1649), the lament for lost love (‘Misero, così va’, set over a ground bass, from the violent and never-performed Eliogabalo, 1667), playful love (‘Amante, sperate’ from L’Egisto, 1643) and so forth. The lion’s share of extracts are taken from Giasone, rightly described by Lorenzo Bianconi in his notes for the complete Jacobs recording as ‘the most highly acclaimed, the most reviled opera of the Italian 17th century’, the most acclaimed because it was revived more often than any other Italian opera, the most reviled because it was a serious mythological story treated, as some literary scholars saw it, in a flippant manner. Long after Cavalli’s death it would be used as a big stick to change the entire course of Italian opera. But that’s another story. Here there are four extracts devoted to the love between Medea and Jason, though Giasone’s ‘Delizie, contenti’ (act 1) is addressed to the joys of love generally rather than the mother of his twins, whose identity at that point in the opera remains unknown to him.

One reason recitals of extracts from Cavalli’s operas are infrequent is that they are far more context-specific in ways that later opera seria  is not (think ‘simile aria’). This, too, is an era when words still dominated the music – prima le parole, doppia la musica – and while Cavalli was a wonderful melodist, as is readily apparent here in the irresistible ‘Dolcissimi baci’ from La Calisto, 1651), this is essentially music for actor-singers. In this respect soprano Raquel Andueza is here the superior. She starts with the advantage of a lovely voice that in more intimate, sensual moments takes on that slightly darkened, husky timbre that seems unique to Spanish sopranos. You need hear only the way she sings the words ‘baciata o baciante’ (kissed or kissing) from Medea’s ‘Se dardo pungente’, for example, to be utterly seduced by Andueza. Unfortunately there is a downside and it’s a serious one in that she seems totally oblivious of the need to add any ornamentation. Given that a number of these pieces are in strophic form, it seems extraordinary that neither she nor anyone connected with the recording found it incongruous that she was happy to repeat each verse with no variant. In this respect the countertenor Xavier Sabata is superior, as is amply demonstrated by the final line of ‘Or che l’aurora’, very stylishly ornamented by Sabata, but ignored by Andueza when her turn comes. Indeed Sabata’s singing is beautifully controlled throughout, but as already indicated there’s a fly in the ointment with him too, his vocal acting and concern for text (or lack of it) leaving something to be desired.

The accompaniments are on the right scale, with two violins and violone plus a continuo group including archlute, theorbo and, anachronistically, double harp, though surprisingly there is no harpsichord, where one would expect two. The playing is good, though the violin playing belongs to the 18th rather than the 17th century. Curiously I’ve found all the reservations about the present CD correspond exactly to those on the disc mentioned above, where the soprano was Giulia Semenzato and the countertenor the excellent Raffaele Pe. A further black mark for the texts in the booklet, published over photographs that at times render them virtually illegible. Ultimately, then, both CDs provide satisfying collections that with greater care taken over stylistic matters might have been more highly recommendable.

Brian Robins