Jommelli: La Passione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo

[Anke Herrmann Maddalena, Debora Beronesi Giovanni, Jeffrey Francis Pietro, Maurizio Picconi Giuseppe d’Arimatea SmSTB, Ensemble Vocale Sigismondo d’India, Ensemble Vocale Eufonia,] Berliner Barock Akademie, Alessandro De Marchi
125:00 (2 CDs in a wallet)
Pan Classics PC 10376 (1996)

This recording of Jommelli’s 1749 Passion is not new, having originally been issued on K617 in 1996. It was composed during the period the composer was nominally based in Rome, but the oratorio may have been written for Vienna, where Jommelli spent much of 1749. The work is divided into two parts, in the first of which the events of the Crucifixion are retrospectively recounted to Peter (who had of course fled the scene) by Mary Magdalene (sop), John (mez) and Joseph of Arimathea, the last named poetic licence, the man responsible for Jesus’ burial not named in the Gospels as having been present at the Crucifixion. In the briefer second part, the mood turns to looking forward both to the vengeance that will be wreaked on Jerusalem, but also the conflict between doubt and hope that followed in the aftermath of Christ’s death. Metastasio’s libretto is colourful and graphic, employing many of the devices – so-called ‘simile’ arias are an example – familiar from his opera librettos.

Anyone approaching this Passion setting from the standpoint of those of the Baroque in general and Bach in particular may initially be disappointed in La Passione di Gesù Cristo. This is a fully-fledged early Classical work and the Classical era was not very comfortable with tragedy, especially religious tragedy. Arias are long and often demanding, while many will feel a number miss the deeper thoughts expressed by the character. Thus when Mary Magdalene sings ‘Vorrei dirti il mio dolore’ (I wish to express my sorrow), she does so in triple time and Lombardy rhythms that appear to belie any such wish. For this reason I think Part 2 is arguably the stronger musically. There are at least two outstanding arias in this section of the work, one being ‘All’idea de tuoi perigli’, Joseph’s horrified reaction to John’s prediction that Jesus will come again to Jerusalem to avenge the profanation of the temple. Set to a descending fugal figure and exhibiting strong vocal rhetoric, it illustrates Jommelli’s writing at its dramatic best. Conversely, John’s ‘Dovunque il guardo’ is a piece of deeply affecting lyricism set to an especially lovely text. Throughout the work Jommelli’s orchestral writing looks forward to the richness of texture that became such a hallmark of his Stuttgart years (from 1753).

The orchestral playing on the present recording is highly accomplished, a major component of a performance that is in most respects excellent and rather less mannered than some of Alessandro De Marchi’s more recent work. He is proved generally fortunate in his choice of soloists, too. The most demanding role is that of Peter, here sung with great dramatic conviction by the American tenor Jeffrey Francis, who is especially outstanding in Jommelli’s splendid accompanied recitatives. Only in the more challenging tessitura of an aria like ‘Giacché mi tremi does he occasionally sound a little strained. Soprano Anke Herrmann is a touching Mary Magdalene who is an almost unqualified success. She has a decent trill, too, though she might have been encouraged to use it a little more often. Debora Beronesi (John) and Maurizio Picconi (Joseph) do nothing seriously wrong, but neither has a very distinctive vocal personality. There are only three choruses, De Marchi’s decision – for which he seeks justification in his booklet on interpretation – to go for a large body not at all convincing for music whose character clearly suggests to me that they were intended to be sung by the solo quartet.

Brian Robins