Categories
Recording

Saint-Georges: L’Amant anonyme

Haymarket Opera Company, conducted by Craig Trompeter
170:31 (3 CDs)
Cedille CDR 90000 217

The Afro-French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, then a French colony, around 1745, the son of a local mother and a wealthy planter and nobleman. Little is known about his earlier life other than that he received an all-round education befitting his status. This included not only music but swordsmanship, at which he became one of the most noted exponents of his day. Again we know little of his musical training but he was a fine violinist, good enough to take over the directorship of Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs in 1773, three years later unsuccessfully attempting to become a leader of the Paris Opéra.

It is as an instrumental composer that  Saint-Georges is today best remembered, but he also composed four (and possibly more) opéras comiques, three of which were written for the Comédie Italienne and are now wholly or partly lost. The fourth was L’Amant Anonyme, here receiving its first recording. It differs from Saint-Georges’ other operas in that it was composed in 1780 for the private theatre of Madame de Montesson, the mistress (later wife) of the Duke of Orleans. Cast in two acts, it is a curiously hybrid work. The use of French, the spoken dialogue and the inclusion of ballets all point firmly to the kind of opéra comique developed by Philidor and Grétry. Yet musically the style is decidedly Italianate, as a couple of minutes spent with the quasi-Mozartian overture will reveal. Arias are in a variety of forms; it is interesting to find da capo arias termed ‘ariette’, following the pattern established in the tragedies lyriques of composers such as Rameau.

L’Amant Anonyme has a libretto drawn from a play of the same name by the prolific writer the Comtesse de Genlis. The simple plot involves the intrigues of Valcour, the anonymous lover of the title to win the love of the young widow Léontine, who he has loved in silence for four years but who has finally decided to ‘come out’. The only other characters are their confidants, respectively Ophémon and Dorothée (a non-singing role that the notes suggest may have been played by Madame de Montesson herself) and a young peasant couple, Jeannette and Colin, who are on the cusp of marriage. A certain faux-naiveté informs both the plot and much of the music.

The recording stems from the Haymarket Opera Company, which is based in Chicago and specialises in period productions; the pictures in Cedille’s splendidly produced booklet suggest spectacularly lavish costumes. The performance is pleasant enough but in truth lacking any real distinction. The potted biographies of the singers reveal that none are early music specialists – a curious anomaly for a company devoted to HIP – as is readily revealed by the amount of continuous vibrato on show. The best of them is the Léontine, Nicole Cabell, who does well by the score’s finest and most extended number, the act 2 ariette ‘Du tendre amour’, but is elsewhere apt to become shrill in her upper range. The French dialogue is spoken with varying degrees of success, but if you don’t want to hear it the third CD contains just the musical numbers.  

This a brave effort that deserves praise simply on the grounds that it is an ambitious project – even the music needed editing – executed honestly and with integrity. I’m not convinced that it reveals Saint-Georges to be more than a talented secondary composer and don’t think the note writer’s hyperbole helps his cause any more than the occasionally used lazy appendage, ‘the black Mozart’. Among other things he asks us to look on L’amant anonyme as some kind of trailblazer, remembering that in 1780 Mozart had yet to write any of his, quote, ‘major’ operas. True, but La finta giardiniera predates L’amant by five years and the comparison is invidious. Case dismissed.

Brian Robins

Categories
Book

Dorothea Link: The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna

University of Illinois Press, 472 pp.
ISBN 9780252044649 (cloth) – £112:00; ISBN 9780252053658 (ebook) – £32.38 on Kindle.

The story of the Italian opera company formed in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II might have remained an interesting byway in the history of opera but for one rather significant fact. It happened to be the birthplace of two of the three operas Mozart composed in collaboration with the court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, all three operas of course standing among the supreme achievements of the genre. Both Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte were commissions for Vienna, though the libretto of the latter only came to Mozart after Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, had declared it unworthy of being set. Don Giovanni was not a Viennese opera, having been composed for Prague in 1787, but it transferred to Vienna with a few changes the following year.

Josephine opera starts in 1783, two years after Mozart took up permanent residence in Vienna, and concludes when it was transformed in 1791, shortly after the emperor’s death the previous year. One of the remarkable aspects is that the company was run as a commercial enterprise by Joseph, who oversaw every aspect of its functioning – including the hiring (and firing) of the contracted singers, the majority of whom were Italian – over most of the course of the company’s existence. Only at the end of the period, when he was away fighting another of the endless wars with the Turks, did Joseph loosen his grip. Many of those contracted were among the leading singers of the day, a highly important asset since the success or otherwise of an opera most likely depended not so much on the composer or work but the singers, above all the prima donna (or leading lady).

It is this milieu that is thoroughly investigated in The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna by Dorothea Link, Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia. As the name suggests her principal topic is the careers of the Italian singers that were engaged in Vienna; one of the most valuable sections of the book is an appendix in which the roles taken by the most significant of these singers not just in Vienna but in other major centres are charted. This in itself leads to some fascinating information that will not only be of great value to scholars but of interest to a more general readership. Who, for example, will not find questions coming to mind about the type of singer that created the well-known roles in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas when we discover the first Contessa in Figaro, Luisa Laschi was also the first Viennese Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Few today would think of casting a Zerlina as the Countess, at least not until she’d matured a bit. And who will argue with Link, having seen her argument that the role of Despina in Così is intended for a mezzo, not the soprano we generally hear? Link’s plan has been to treat each season as a separate chapter in which the comings and goings of contracted singers are recorded along with local reaction to them, leaning heavily on the formidable Count Karl Zinzendorf, a government officer and diarist, who attended virtually every opera, sometimes on multiple occasions. Zinzendorf was something of a ‘groupie’ follower of Nancy Storace, creator of the role of Susanna in Figaro, and the prima donna that dominates the earlier chapters (she was at the Burgtheater, the Viennese home of Italian opera, from 1783 to 1787. Incidentally, it is also fascinating to learn that had Figaro been premiered a few months earlier Storace would have sung the Countess, since the role of Susanna would have been sung by Storace’s co-prima-donna Celeste Coltellini had the latter not left for Naples earlier in the year. More food for thought, given that the high-spirited Storace is often thought of as the archetypal  Susanna.

The question of identifying the voice types that created the familiar roles in Mozart’s operas of this period is arguably the most valuable single topic in the book, since of course it plays a part in how we view these characters when we go to these operas today, not to mention how we identify with the manner in which in the role is played or produced. A good example is Francesco Benucci (c.1745-1824), the creator of Figaro and Guglielmo (Così),  and of Leporello in the Viennese Don Giovanni. Described as a buffo caricato, a complex vocal identification applied to baritones or basses, we know from the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Basilio) that Mozart greatly admired Benucci’s singing, but it is extracts from several reviews quoted by Link that should set the Mozart enthusiast pondering: ‘Benucci combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptional round, full and beautiful voice… He has a rare habit that few Italians share: he never exaggerates.  Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy’. Another report speaks of his ‘inimitable polish and comic naturalness’ and his ability to convey, ‘the ridiculous with decorum in every, in every word, in every gesture, in every look, in every movement …’  These are words that should set modern directors, singers and audiences thinking about the way in which we play these – and other comic bass characters – today.

There is so much valuable detail of this kind in these pages that in that sense the book is self-recommending to anyone that would better understand the opera of the period, and not just in Vienna. Regrettably, for the general reader, the book is written in an academic style that makes it difficult to read and will likely restrict it to being a reference tool. Link’s prose lacks style, but above all she has a tendency to incorporate long lists of facts that would have been far better put into tabulated form, leaving her prose to flow more naturally. There are also a number of typographical errors and several instances of carelessness, such as that on p 312, where we are told a proposal to invite Francesco Bussoni, the creator of the role of Don Alfonso (Così) to sing ‘Haydn’s oratorio was rejected …’ Which Haydn oratorio is not identified (it was Il ritorno di Tobia).

Such caveats do not detract from the academic achievement of The Italian Opera Singers, which is considerable and laudable. The book is an important addition to our knowledge and understanding of opera in Mozart’s Vienna, not just the operas of Mozart himself, but of many other composers such as Salieri, with the focus very much on those that performed them.

Brian Robins

Categories
Concert-Live performance

Opera Streaming – Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano in Ravenna

Photo © Zani-Casadio

With the onset of the Covid pandemic, the streaming of live opera became an increasingly viable and popular way not only to bring opera to an established audience unable to attend public venues, but also to open up the genre to a new audience. Opera Streaming is the name given to a seasonal programme of opera transmissions that are freely available on YouTube. Based in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, the project draws on the productions presented in an area rich in historic theatres. Within this comparatively small region, there are no fewer than eight theatres, those of Bologna, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini. Opera Streaming has no input into the theatre production, streaming solely without interference as an ‘onlooker’. Among the works scheduled for the 2022-23 season were new productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto (from Piacenza), Die Fledermaus, given in Italian (!), and the one to which I was invited, Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano given in the beautiful mid-19th century theatre in Ravenna on January 14 and 15, on the latter of which the opera was streamed live.

I wrote above ‘Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano’ but knowledgeable Vivaldians will be aware that is only partially true, since the opera is a pasticcio, one of three operas commissioned by the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona for the Carnaval season of 1735. Vivaldi had been hired as impresario for the season, so his occupation in that capacity probably accounts for the reason he put on a pasticcio, one based on a manuscript of his own, Il Bajazet. From that he took the majority of arias, but added others by Giacomelli (3 arias), Hasse (3) and Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Farinelli, who is represented by two. Vivaldi was therefore left with only recitatives to compose, including several stretches of accompagnato, most notably Bajazet’s spine-chilling denunciation of his daughter Asteria near the end of act 2. Also worth noting as being of exceptional quality is Tamerlano’s ‘Cruda sorte’, taken from Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia of 1733, although that almost certainly had much to do with the magnificent performance it received at Ravenna. But more on that anon. Tamerlano has a libretto by Agostino Piovane that had already been set by several composers, in particular Handel (1724). It is relatively unusual among Baroque operas in having a straightforward story without subplots. It concerns the relationship between the famous Mongol emperor Timur (Tamerlano), who historically defeated the Turks and captured their Sultan, Bayezid (Bajazet). Although Tamerlano is engaged to Princess Irene, he has fallen in love with Asteria the daughter of Bajazet, who has been promised in marriage to the Greek prince Andronico. The opera revolves largely around the battle of minds between victor and loser, but encompasses the moving and powerful love of a proud father who would rather take his own life, than see his daughter become the wife of his hated enemy Tamerlano.

Ravenna’s production started with two considerable advantages: the first the presence in the orchestra pit of the local home team, the Accademia Bizantina under their director Ottavio Dantone, indisputably for some years Italy’s number one Baroque orchestra, who also made a superlative recording of Il Tamerlano some two years ago with a cast that featured the same principals. This told especially in the Tamerlano of the outstanding Filippo Mineccia, who sang throughout with thrilling power and intensity, and the equally impressive Asteria of Delphine Galou, at once a vulnerable and strong character. As Bajazet the baritone Bruno Taddia was a commanding presence, even if vocally the voice itself sounded more worn than it had done on the recording and was less impressive than that of Gianluca Margheri, who took over for the live streaming. Honours in the roles of Irene and Andronico remain in the hands of the recording artists, Sophie Rennert, whose Irene equalled that of Marie Lys for command of coloratura demanded by the role but excelled it for tonal beauty, while Marina de Liso’s outstanding fluid and gracious Andronico was also preferable to that of sopranist Federico Fiorio, though the latter deserves credit for the trill of the performance (the only one throughout apart from a brief attempt by Galou). Both Giuseppina Bridelli in the theatre and Ariana Vendittelli (on CD) were excellent as Idaspe. However, without undermining some fine singing, the point has to be made that the true stars of the performance were Accademia Bizantina, whose playing under Dantone was simply magnificent.

Rather less than magnificent was the production of Stefano Monti, who also designed the sets and costumes. The basic stage set, which incorporated a fair amount of meaningless or puzzling (take your choice) back projection, was clean and uncluttered, featuring only monumental stone columns and steps on each side of the stage. I claim no expertise on the subject of the garb of Mongol warriors, but quick research courtesy of Google suggests Monti’s are pretty authentic looking. Less authentic for an era where operas were staged with bravura magnificence and brilliance was the drab impression made by the staging, predominated as it was by greys and blacks, with the odd splash of red from time to time. Nevertheless, such caveats pale into insignificance compared with Monti’s greatest blunder. This was the decision to have each character shadowed by what was termed a dancer, but in reality was a twitching, demented marionette whose activity barely ceased. The movement not only conflicted for the majority of the time with the music, but, worse, committed the cardinal Baroque opera crime of detracting attention from a singer’s aria time after time, sufficient indeed to earn several lifetime sentences. If you wish to see for yourself, Opera Streaming’s relay will be available on YouTube for six months at the time of writing (June 2023). You can catch it HERE .

Brian Robins

Categories
News

Podcasts from Paris

Fans of the French Baroque are in for a real treat if they visit https://expodcast.cmbv.fr/en – six podcasts have been produced by the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. To a rich musical backdrop, all sorts of information is shared (either in English or French) from the golden era of Louis XIV to the dawn of the Revolution. These are highly recommended!

Brian Clark

Categories
Recording

Handel: Theodora

Lisette Oropesa Theodora, Joyce Didonato Irene, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian Didymus, Michael Spyres Septimus, John Chest Valens SmScTTB, Il Pomo d’Oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato 5054197177910
179:18 9 (3 CDs)

Having frequently berated British conductors for directing Handel’s operas as if they were oratorios, here’s a case of the boot being on the other foot – a non-British conductor directing one of the oratorios as if were an opera. If you are going to choose to do this, it would be difficult to think of a better candidate than Handel’s penultimate oratorio Theodora, first given to a libretto by Thomas Morell at Covent Garden in 1750. It is unusual for Handel in a number of respects, not least because it does not follow the usual format of setting an Old Testament story, but rather that of a Christian martyr in the Roman Empire. Moreover, in addition to being a morality, it is equally a love story between Theodora, the martyr and Didymus, a Roman soldier converted to Christianity by his love for her. That the pair suffer martyrdom together to meld into a love as unbreakable and eternal as that of Galatea and Acis is the uplifting message of Theodora, one underlined in Handel’s final chorus but totally (deliberately?) missed by Peter Sellars in his infamous 1996 production for Glyndebourne.

Maxim Emelyanychev’s approach is light-textured, rhythmically buoyant in quicker, more dramatic numbers, but above all infused with the Italianate lyricism that is so much a defining feature of Handel’s operas. More expressive numbers are often taken fashionably and excessively slowly, the Roman soldier Septimus’s sensitive ‘Descend, kind pity’ and Irene’s ravishing ‘As with rosy steps’ being two extreme examples from part 1; others follow at regular intervals. Also taken far too deliberately are the plain recitatives, which suffer from the all-too-common fault of being sung, often cantabile. And speaking of tediously repetitive faults in current performance practice, the inclusion of a theorbist who constantly makes his presence felt where it is not wanted is another. Indeed his superfluous and at times tasteless contributions serve to further inspire my intentions to found a society for the banning of continuo lutenists. It is worth recalling that in his benchmark recording of the oratorio Paul McCreesh found no reason to include such a personage. More positively, Il Pomo d’Oro’s playing is well up to the orchestra’s high standards, while the choral singing is one of the glories of the set. Employing a leaner ensemble than we usually hear in Handel oratorios – just four voices per part – balance, contrapuntal detail, incisiveness and projection are exemplary, while the English diction of the largely Italian membership is highly commendable. 

The cast assembled is interesting for including some of the most fashionable current names in the operatic world, a far cry from the kind of soloists that normally appear in a British Handel oratorio performance or recording. The Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa is particularly hot property at present – as I write she is about to sing her first Alcina as Covent Garden – whose activities extend way beyond the Handelian repertoire. The voice itself is simply gorgeous, generously imbued with a near-voluptuous quality. Bigger than one might expect in this repertoire, neither that fact nor a fast vibrato is troublesome here, both being under impressive control. Oropesa’s mid-range is especially lovely, with ‘Angels, ever bright’ a particularly good place to sample it. An air like ‘Oh, that I on wings’ displays an attractive bright agility, while passage work throughout is stylishly articulated. Some less than stylish ornamentation in the da capo of the same aria however features a less laudable side of her singing, while I found scant evidence of the ‘endless supply of golden-age trills’ mentioned in a blurb on the singer’s website. Indeed trills of any age are in notoriously short supply and you won’t find any coming from Joyce DiDonato’s as Theodora’s Christian companion Irene. What you will find in spades is her rare ability to colour a text and given the role’s allotment of some of Handel’s most memorable airs – ‘As with rosy steps’ and ‘New scenes of joy’ to name a couple – there is much to relish from her splendid assumption of the role. Not everything is praiseworthy, however, and like Oropesa, she is inclined to moments of self-indulgence, especially at cadenzas. Much the worst example occurs at the end of the recap of ‘Lord, to thee’, the air that opens part 3, where the long, unaccompanied meanderings come close to touching on narcissism.

The young French countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian is another artist understandably making considerable waves. The voice is one of intrinsic beauty, well produced and controlled. His Didymus is a highly musical performance, as is already apparent in the way he shapes the opening of his first aria, ‘The raptured soul’, while ‘Dread the fruits’ demonstrates full confidence in more bravura writing, with impressive passaggi. I’ve become accustomed to Michael Spyres as today’s leading interpreter of the great Berlioz tenor roles, so wondered what he’d make of the part of Septimus, the empathetic friend of Didymus. The answer is that he triumphs with it, producing a performance of great character, while demonstrating himself fully capable of encompassing the rather different technique required for Handel. And finally to round off a truly distinguished cast, John Chest is magnificent in the role of the unbending Roman tyrant Valens, his richly burnished tone and authoritative performance adding a further element of distinction.

Theodora is indisputably one of Handel’s greatest works, though it is worth recalling that as with many works of great stature, it was not always considered so. As such the present set is highly valuable for the fresh light it casts on a work that is one of the glories of the English oratorio repertoire. It is not perfect, as noted above, but it does include some exceptional singing and should to be heard by anyone who loves the work. If the ultimate library version remains Paul McCreesh’s superb 2000 recording, I am grateful to have heard this remarkable new Erato, to which I hope to return on many occasions.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley

Mary Bevan, Catherine Carby, Mark Wilde, John Savournin, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews
107:56 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
resonus RES10304

The Dragon of Wantley by the German-born John Frederick Lampe and his regular librettist Henry Carey was one of the most successful English stage works of the 18th century. A burlesque opera offered to Drury Lane, it was refused and waited a further two years until its premiere at the Little Theatre in 1737. The rejection transpired to be a bloomer comparable with Decca’s rejection of the Beatles; The Dragon was the sensation of the season, later being taken over by John Rich at Covent Garden, where in its first season it received no fewer than 59 performances, more than had been achieved by The Beggar’s Opera nine years earlier. The libretto was reprinted endlessly, the opera taken up by other companies and holding the stage until 1782.

The reason for The Dragon’s success is not hard to understand. A full-scale three-act opera, it broadly follows the design of opera seria. Unlike most English stage works, there is no dialogue, only recitative. The secret of the work’s appeal to English audiences is that it is a clever and merciless parody of Italian oratorio and opera, debate over the latter remaining a contentious issue in England throughout the century. While Lampe, who earlier had himself composed three serious operas, composed music that is skilful, attractive and often touching, Carey’s libretto persistently undermines any element of seriousness by being absurd, cleverly creating a near-constant conflict between words and music. There’s a wonderful example at the start of act 2, where the heroine Margery sings a long aria in the voguish sentimental style regretting she has asked her lover, the foppish Moore of Moore Hall, to kill the dragon that has been terrorising the neighbourhood. Set in a nocturnal garden it opens with an exquisite moon-kissed orchestral introduction. But any magic is immediately dissipated by the opening words, ‘Sure my Stays will burst with sobbing, And my Heart quite crack with throbbing’. So we have the full parody treatment: an aria di furia complete with Handelian chromaticism for Margery’s rival Mauxalinda; a furious duet between the rival women that early audiences will have associated with the warring between Handel’s singers Faustina and Bordoni; a mock Battle Sinfonia replete with trumpets, horns and timpani – Moore kills the dragon with a kick up the backside – and a grand oratorio final chorus, in which repeated  ‘Huzzas’ stand in for the customary ‘Hallelujahs’.   

While far from perfect, this first performance of the complete opera is enjoyable, not least for playing the piece relatively straight and without guying it. Therein, however, is also a problem, for although John Andrews’s direction is idiomatically assured and the playing of The Brook Street Band neat and tidy, it is possible to imagine the work benefitting from a more spirited, lively performance. This impression is underlined by tempos that tend to the pedestrian and rhythms that are not infrequently four-square and lacking ‘lift’. It is also a pity that the recording emphasises the ecclesiastical acoustic of St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, a less appropriate sound for a bawdy opera being hard to imagine. This affects the singers, too, in particular Mary Bevan’s Margery, whose largely excellent performance is spoiled by the voice spreading in the upper range. None of the other singers have much in the way of early music credentials and it shows in the level of continuous vibrato on display, particularly in the case of the Mauxalinda. Ornamentation is applied haphazardly and with variable success, that of Bevan being superior to her colleagues. Bass John Savournin is fine in the brief role of Gubbins and an even briefer appearance as the Dragon who devours, ‘Houses and Churches, to him Geese and Turkies’, but tenor Mark Wilde’s Moore has intonation problems in passage work, though he brings more character to the recitative than is in evidence elsewhere.  

As I suggested earlier, Lampe’s fine work is enjoyably enough presented, though it would be good to hear it given a more vocally stylish performance. More careful proofreading of Andrews’s notes might have avoided reference to Handel’s Giustnino (for which read Giustino).

Brian Robins 

Categories
Book

RECERCARE XXXII/1-2  2020

Journal for the study and practice of early music
directed by Arnaldo Morelli
LIM Editrice [2020]. 242 pp, €30
ISSN 1120-5741
recercare@libero.it; www.lim.it

The 2020 RECERCARE contains seven studies, four in English and three in Italian, all the fruit of investigative perseverance, on specific works, prints, sources, situations or occasions. The relevance of uncovered historical details intrinsic to the creation of the music itself makes each article such a rewarding read. The full documentation, often provided in appendices, has more than a supportive role: aside from the specific cases discussed, it may greatly serve other researchers. Recercare is therefore an exponential boon to musical research.

Elena Abramov-van Rijk  asksTo whom did Francesco Landini address his madrigal Deh, dimmi tu’ [‘Say, tell me you … Who do you think you are!?’] While she describes the unusual musical and poetic structure of this ballata, which we have from various sources, it is its popularity and confrontational, accusatory tone that begs for a motive. The anonymous text could well be by Landini himself (Florence, 1325-1397), and the invective directed at a contemporary he knew or who was widely known, who accumulated valuable, portable riches in ‘easy’ ways. The author finds two potential candidates, both acclaimed court entertainers, whom she refers to (unfortunately, I think) as ‘buffoons’. In fact, both probably merited their riches, gained not-so-easily at all. The ballata itself does not refer to a performer, but every word seems applicable, and the careers of both are impressive: Dolcibene de’ Tori, crowned regem ystrionum in 1355 by the Roman Emperor Charles IV and invited to perform in many other courts, was an actor and ioculator (juggler), a poet (his poems ranging from the sacred to his problems with arthritis and impotence, sometimes with scurrilous vocabulary), a composer of canzonette, a singer, an organist and lutenist, and the protagonist of nine of Franco Sacchetti’s 300 anecdotal stories. Bindo di Cione, of Siena, the other, also served Charles IV and in other courts. It is the interpretation of Landini’s famous madrigal (of ca. 1355) that suggests so vividly how these talented entertainers thrived. The complete musical transcription follows.

Patrizio Barbieri ’s ‘Music printing and selling in Rome: new findings on Palestrina, Kerle and Guidotti, 1554–1574’ discusses four newly found disparate documents, presented as four pieces of an incomplete ‘mosaic’, and lastly, the inventory of a Roman bookseller and of a musician from Cambrai which included instruments, printed or handwritten vocal works, an iron music stand used while playing the harpsichords, and an erasable slate with staves for drafting music on. The description and purpose of the editions documented, and the contracts to publish and market them, show who covered the initial expenses, and whether any assistance was offered to authors or others. The publications discussed in detail are Palestrina’s Missarum liber primus (1554) and Kerle’s hymni totius anni et Magnificat (1558-60). The musical inventory of a general Roman bookseller, Antonio Maria Guidotti, includes a great number of almost exclusively Venetian prints of vocal music, mostly madrigals, plus treatises: B. Rossetti’s 1529 Libellus De Rudimentis Musices, G. M. Lanfranco’s 1533 Scintille di musica, and G. Zarlino’s 1558-2 Le Istitutioni harmoniche. The original documents in the Appendix may be useful to others for reflections and comparisons.

Franco Pavans ‘La musica per chitarrone di Giacomo Antonio Pfender. Nuove acquisizioni’ identifies Pfender, detto il Tedeschino, as the composer of some pieces for archlute in a manuscript in the Archivio Estense in Modena (and in a facsimile)1 previously attributed to an older composer, Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638).

Pfender is known for having collected and published two states of Kapsberger’s Libro primo d’intavolatura di chitarrone in 1604 in Venice. They were close friends in their student days in Augsburg, and based on Kapsberger’s dates (1580-1651) they were in their early 20s in 1604. Pfender’s name reappears on designs for the frontispiece of another chitarrone collection, found in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de san Fernando in Madrid, where he is named as one of the composers. What the two collections share is a monogram resembling a stick figure with outstretched arms, turned-out feet, and a dot for the ‘head’. It actually consists of four superimposed letters, only two of which were previously noticed: an A and a swirl from its point to the middle of its right side form a P, thus suggesting Alessandro Piccinini. There are also short lines under the A’s two ‘feet’, a wide line balanced on its point, and a central dot above that line.

Pavan brilliantly deciphered the other two letters this monogram. The left side of A and the dot form a dotted capital I preceding AP, and the wide top line uses the right side of A to make a T. İAPT stands for Giacomo (Iacomo or Ioannes) Antonio Pfender, and T for Tedesco (German).

Many more useful considerations accompany this discovery: relations between Roman musical circles and Modena, the handwriting and probable date of the tablature, and a list of its 28 pieces: of which 7, not known from other sources, are attributed to ‘HK’ (Kapsberger), 9 to ‘AP’(?), 5 to ‘İAPT’ and several unattributed. Pavan modestly considers not quite resolved whether those identified as by ‘AP’ are attributable to Piccinini or to Pfender, but after keeping readers in legitimate doubt he adds that the abbreviations HK and AP appear to be in a different hand and ink! The facsimile of the Modena manuscript names only Kapsberger, Piccinini, and G. Viviani, and its editor, Francesca Torelli, was therefore forced to remark that the styles of HK and the older AP were surprisingly similar, so perhaps they were quoting each other! It is too bad that SPES (Archivum Musicum) no longer exists, because continuing this research and revising that introduction would be quite useful.

The Appendix gives Pfender’s letter of dedication of Kapsberger’s Libro primo d’intavolatura di chitarrone. He respectfully addressed Kapsberger as his fratello osservandissimo, and signed fratello amorevolissimo, ‘very loving brother’. It is a curious dedication, since Kapsberger had apparently not requested or given permission for publication. Pfender clears his conscience by saying that he published them in order to make Kapsberger a gift of what he stole, since up to then the pieces were so universally desired that they had become donnicciuole [derogatory term for little old women], whereas now he can peacefully recognize them and accept them back!

1 G. Kapsberger – A. Piccinini – G. Vivianai, Intavolatura di chitarrone. Mss. Modena, ed. facs., introduzione di Francesca Torelli, Firenze, SPES, 1999.

In March 2019 Maddalena Bonechi’s edition of G. B. da Gagliano’s Varie musiche, libro primo, 1623 was reviewed here. Her edition includes as much biographical information on Marco da Gagliano’s less famous brother Giovanni Battista (1594-1651) as there was to discuss. It also gave analyses of the works and their texts. Her present article, ‘Parole, immagini e musica nelle pratiche devozionali della compagnia di San Benedetto Bianco a Firenze – alcuni possibili contributi di da Gagliano’ focuses on the texts, imagery and music as essential to the devotional practices of the Florentine religious confraternity to which Giovanni Battista (and possibly Marco) belonged, and relates how paintings, poetry and music were fused in their spiritual activities. Whether or not the religious compositions in Gagliano’s publication were designed for the San Benedetto Bianco congregation, at least one was performed there: Ecco ch’io verso il sangue, presumably for a theatrical enactment of the passion and death of Jesus, along with the laments of Mary, traditionally for Good Friday. Depictions of the Passion and themes exalting God in comparison with one’s own nothingness and of penitence, enhanced the ritual flagellation practices of the members, who strived to gain insight from such first-hand experience. The beauty of the music and art may indeed have attenuated the rough physical sensory input incurred to stimulate and attain this understanding.

Lucas G. Harris – Robert L. Kendrick gave a curious title,Of nuns fictitious and real: revisiting Philomela angelica (1688)’ to their fortuitous discovery and comparative analysis. A Benedictine nun, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602 – ca.1677), had her 12 solo motets, Scherzi di sacra melodia, printed in score with a separate vocal part book in 1648 by Alessandro Vincenti. Only the vocal parts of this Venetian print survive. Forty years later Daniel Speer published a collection of Italian sacred works, his Philomela angelica, anagrammatically tagged “Res Plena Dei” [Daniel Speer], and attributed to ‘a Roman nun’. Speer’s print contains 24 motets, of which 6, with their continuo lines, are by Cozzolani, 3 by Cazzati, 1 duet attributed to the Ursuline nun Leonarda, and 14 not yet identifiable. What is fortunate is that in his search for Italian sacred pieces that would appeal to Lutherans in southwest Germany, Speer did have the continuo line.

By comparison of sources or by conjecture, Speer simplified the vocal writing, heavy ornamentation being out of fashion, deleted some Italian tempo or ‘mood’ indications, added string parts or sections, and slightly adapted the continuo figures to more Germanic usage. Harris and Kendrick are attempting to reconstruct Cozzolani’s originals, if they can distinguish her harmony and rhetoric from Speer’s arrangements. They have more to go by in the Cazzati and Leonarda pieces, which survive with their continuo parts.

Valerio Morucci  examines part of the private correspondence of Christine of Sweden relating to her musical patronage and employment of singers, in ‘L’orbita musicale di Cristina di Svezia e la circolazione di cantanti nella seconda metà del Seicento’. Administrative documents, such as registers and accounts, have generally gone missing, but communications with singers and with other patrons, courts, cappellas, theaters, and cities (Rome, Venice, Mantua, Modena), await researchers who follow her lead. The degree of cooperation between other courts and hers, her granting of freedom to modify agreements in order for singers to accept additional work, and to establish goodwill between competing patrons, is surprising and admirable. Even this first exploration (the Appendix presents citations from 16 documents) regarding a small number of female singers and castratos will be of interest. They include: Nicola and Antonia Coresi, Barbara Riccioni, Giuseppe Maria Donati detto il Baviera, Giuseppe Fede, Alessandro Bifolchi, Giovanni Paolo Bonelli; other castratos such as Alessandro Cecconi, Giuseppe Bianchi, Antonio Rivani, and Domenico Cecchi detto il Cortona. Some were retained with salaries while many remained absolutely independent, such as Giovanni Francesco Grossi ‘detto Siface’ and Giuseppe Maria Segni ‘detto il Finalino’.

‘Writing a tenor’s voice: Cesare Grandi and the Siena production of Il Farnaspe (1750)’ by Colleen Reardon is a vividly engaging story. The details, gleaned from 119 letters to the inexperienced sponsoring impresario, Francesco Sansedoni, regard the ultimate success of a single opera, beset by numerous potential crises as originally planned, but methodically high-jacked by the ingenious, competent, hard-working, third tenor – and not only to further the careers of his second soprano wife and himself. Cesare Grandi offered and sufficiently motivated his unsolicited advice, eventually accepted by Sansedoni, reversing or manipulating almost every artistic and practical decision – major and minor changes affecting the music itself, the casting, the staging, the order of arias and their keys, the costumes, to suit the musical taste of the patron, and the local politics, or for practical reasons like not having the orchestral parts in the right keys after an aria was shifted from its original place in the libretto or even to be sung by a different singer. Famous as Siena was and is for its two summer Palios, tied to religious holidays, Grandi even obtained a change of its July date!

The recently discovered cache of letters containing Grandi’s psychologically astute suggestions to the younger Sansedoni would probably be bewildering to decipher and interpret without the help of Reardon’s orderly, detailed account. I don’t really have a pressing reason for rereading all 40 pages of this wonderful study (plus 15 pages with 29 appended letters), but it does bear more than one reading for the pure pleasure of pondering what a staggering pastiche an opera in 1750 was: the compromises, the pressures, deadlines met, singers cast, the copying, transposing, rewriting or replacing of arias by unnamed composers – thanks to the initiatives of the third tenor…

Barbara Sachs

Categories
Recording

Schütz: Dafne

La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson
75:15
cpo 555 494-2

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Readers of reviews on a site devoted to early music are likely to know something of the history of Schütz’s Dafne, an “opera” performed for the wedding festivities of the daughter of his employer the Elector of Saxony in 1627. Given at the castle theatre in Torgau it then disappeared and remains lost. Given Schütz’s place as the greatest of German 17th-century composers, the notion of a lost  Schütz opera has of course long intrigued music historians, but so far as I’m aware this is the first time anyone has attempted to reconstruct Dafne.

The word opera appeared in the opening sentence in inverted commas advisedly, since there is some debate as to whether or not Dafne can be termed an opera. New Grove Opera thinks not: ‘Dafne, Zwo Comoedian and Orpheo und Euridice (two other lost dramas of Schütz) are spoken plays with vocal inserts, usually in the form of strophic lieder’. Roland Wilson disagrees, making the apparently reasonable point that if Schütz was not writing an opera why would he turn to an adaptation (made by Martin Opitz) of an Italian libretto by Rinuccini that had already been set as operas by Peri (in 1597) and Marco da Gagliano (1607). Wilson points out that Opitz’s rather dismissive comments about the piece stemmed from the fact that he did not understand recitative, himself missing the point that no German drama of this period employed anything other than spoken dialogue. I strongly suspect that what Wilson has set as recitar cantando would have remained spoken dialogue

Wilson’s methodology fundamentally involves setting the libretto to other works of Schütz he believes to have some relevance, though his working methods are not clearly set out. It goes without saying that any assessment of Wilson’s reconstruction is going to involve subjective views, hopefully informed by such points as that made in the previous paragraph. I have immediately to say that I remain unconvinced both by his arguments and the aural results. Opitz’s libretto casts the work as a prologue (declaimed in recitative by Ovid, from whose Metamorphosis the story of Dafne and Apollo is taken) and five brief acts, thus suggesting Monteverdi’s Orfeo, on which Wilson leans heavily in various ways, often wrongly in my opinion, especially as to instrumentation. There is a strong sense of symmetry, each act ending with a madrigalian chorus for the three shepherds, in one case augmented by a soprano. All these choruses –and many of the solo lieder – are cast in extended strophic form and it is a fatal flaw of the performance that there is little or no convincing attempt to vary the verses, as would certainly have been the case with 17th-century performers. Many of Wilson’s choices as to instrumentation and its deployment also strike me as highly questionable. His use of wind and brass is surely far too extensive for a work of this kind, the solemnly lugubrious trombone chords that open act 1, for example, more suggestive of a scene in Hades than an introduction by the shepherds to Apollo’s slaying of the Python. More importantly, and a-historically, instruments not infrequently mask voices, either as continuo that frequently reminds the listener of a ‘flock of noisy sparrows’, to borrow the composer and theorist Agostino Agazzari’s delightful phrase, or, worse, melodically, as in act 2 where Cupid is at one point drowned out by cornetti.

The singers are competent enough, but none show much awareness of the principles of ‘prima le parole poi la musica’ that form the basis of the seconda prattica, leaving some of the extensive passages of recitative lacking any sense of dramatic articulation and, frankly, often being tedious. I’m sorry to sound so negative about a brave project to which Wilson has obviously devoted much time and energy. Others may well be less concerned about some of the historical points raised and should perhaps investigate the disc for themselves.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Monteverdi: Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria

Charles Workman Ulisse, Delphine Galou Penelope Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (cond)
158:46 (3 CDs)
Dynamic 7927.03

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The opening of the notes provided with this set read, ‘The first opera composed by Monteverdi for a Venetian theatre [SS Giovanni e Paolo, 1640], at the time when in Venice the system of paying public theatres was being consolidated, is miles away from Orfeo.’ Indeed it is. In every sense. So one wonders why Ottavio Dantone decided to drag Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria back fifty years into the sound world of Orfeo rather than recreate one appropriate to mid-17th century Venetian theatres? Recorders pipe, cornetti add their agile roulades and a rich continuo section includes a plonking harp. All that is lacking is sackbuts and half a dozen chamber organs of differing kinds.

Dantone’s recording stems from a production by Robert Carson given at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola as part of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino season in June 2021. For those interested, a DVD has been simultaneously released. Illustrations in the booklet suggest a drab-looking modern production with the occasional nod in the direction of period style. As is well known, the score as it has come down to us is incomplete, most notably in the absence of musical settings for several scenes. The edition prepared by Dantone is what would be considered ‘complete’, although some of his musical decisions, such as his treatment of the strange chordal introduction to Penelope’s opening lament, might be thought odd.

My admiration for Dantone’s work in later Baroque music and opera is near boundless, in particular his recognition, rare among conductors, of the dramatic importance of recitative. Here, where we are still very much in the province of prima le parole, poi la musica, that takes on still greater importance. It is one of the great strengths of the performance that it is obvious that much work in this respect has been done by Dantone and his music staff on the 21(!) named soloists, whose diction is largely exemplary. Paradoxically this laudable emphasis on the rhetorical rather than the lyrical also has a downside. From the outset, Dantone’s handling of the continuo group is exceptionally vigorous, excitable, even in places trenchant. At points such as the slaughter of the suitors that pays dividends, but it also encourages singing that is too forced, that at its most extreme encourages the shouting in which some of the cast at times indulge. Leaving aside the two principals, to whom I’ll turn shortly, the cast is in general disappointingly ordinary. The majority are seemingly unfamiliar with the demands of mid-17th century opera – stylish ornamentation is at an absolute premium – and are pushed by Dantone’s approach to sing with too much force and vibrato. I’ll excuse from the general criticism the Minerva of the excellent Arianna Vendittelli, one of the few soloists with a recognisable name, and to a marginally lesser degree Miriam Albano, whose Melanto conveys a certain lively charm.

That brings us to the protagonists. Penelope is one of the great creations of not just early opera but opera of any period, the benchmark immediately laid out in the extended and magnificent opening lament for her long-absent husband. My high hopes of Delphine Galou – for whose work my admiration runs as strongly as it does for her husband (she is Signora Dantone) – were sadly not realised. Although Galou sings with the commitment and conviction she brings to all she does, she somehow does not sound fully at ease with a style that is not her familiar territory, neither does the part seem to lie well for her. Certainly when one thinks back to some of the great Penelopes, Janet Baker and Sara Mingardo, for instance, this cannot be accounted one of Galou’s most successful roles. To check my memories, I went back to Mingardo’s singing of ‘Di misera regina’ (the lament). Mingardo sounds like a singer that has lived with the role, Galou doesn’t. The versatile tenor Charles Workman is to an even greater extent than Galou a stranger to this repertoire. While again his commitment is not in doubt and he is certainly a strong and forceful Ulisse, his at times overwrought singing is not especially appealing and he somehow fails to move the listener even in the tender final pages of the opera. His performance of the Ulisse’s opening scene, his drowsy awakening and subsequent bleak mood (act 1, sc 7) lacks the quality of that of Anizio Zorzi Giustiniani for example in Claudio Cavina’s Glossa set, currently my first choice for a commercial recording. Finest of all but sadly not available commercially is the Rinaldo Alessandrini performance from the 2010 Beaune Festival, which not only incorporates Mingardo’s wonderful Penelope but also conclusively proves that the modest forces intended in Venetian operas of the period work supremely well.

A final thought on that topic. Dantone’s Florence performances were lavishly praised by the critics, not one of whom – to the best of my knowledge – even mentioned the anachronistic instrumental forces employed. That (and much else) is a sad reflection of the invariable ineptitude of most current early opera criticism.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Amazone

Lea Desandre mezzo-soprano, Jupiter, Thomas Dunford
75:37
Erato 0 190295 065843

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This is a recital of extracts from 17th- and 18th-century operas (French and Italian) that feature powerful female characters – Amazons of one kind and another. It is also, of course, a showcase for the powerful virtuosity of mezzo Lea Desandre. She is joined by no less than Cecilia Bartoli and Véronique Gens for duets (one each) and there are also a few short instrumental items. These include a performance of Couperin’s L’Amazône by William Christie, to complete the roster of guest stars.

This is an interesting concept, which introduces us to a lot of (to all intents and purposes) unknown music with several world premiere recordings claimed, all of which I am pleased to have heard. But I have multiple reservations about the performance practice on this disc. We hear a chamber ensemble throughout but would not most, if not necessarily all, of these composers have expected an orchestra? Yes, ‘domestic’ versions of operatic excerpts were published but would such an ensemble have included 16’ instruments? Why is there a lute as well as harpsichord in Louis Couperin’s Passacaille? Percussion?! And, as EMR writers so often observe, the singing is unreconstructed modern. Much is impressive in its way, though Ms Desandre is not always fully in control of her highest register. However, I’d like to hear her live in a fully-staged opera.

The booklet notes (in French, English and German) offer interesting comments about the concept but say little specific about the music, nothing about performance practice and nothing about the artists. Full texts and translations are included, however, but overall this is a release which the EMR/HIP community might find hard work.

David Hansell