musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Domenico MAZZOCCHI (1592 - 1665): La Catena d'Adone, Favola boschereccia in a prologue and 5 acts

Luciana Mancini (Falsirena), Merel Elisheva Kriegsman (Ninfa, Venere), Catherine Lybaert (Amore, Ninfa), Marie de Roy (Idonia, Ninfa), soprano; Reinoud Van Mechelen (Adone), Dávid Szigetvári (Apollo, Pastore), tenor; Olivier Berten (Oraspe, Pastore), Nicolas Achten (Arsete, Pastore, Plutone), baritone
Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicolas Achten

rec: Oct 13 - 15 & 18 - 21, 2010, Echternach, Trifolion (Centre Culturel, Touristique et de Congrčs)
Alpha - 184 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (2.12'10")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Justin Glorieux, violin; Varoujan Doneyan, violin, viola; Eriko Semba, viola da gamba, lirone; Simon Linné, theorbo, tiorbino; Solmund Nystabakk, theorbo, guitar; Nicolas Achten, archlute, triple harp, spinettina, harpsichord; Korneel Bernolet, brass-strung harpsichord, organ

Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is generally considered the first real opera in music history. It was the first in what would become a long and rich tradition which is still alive. It was not long before operas were being performed in various towns and courts across Italy. Rome wasn't one of them, though. Here the first opera was performed as late as 1626. It was composed by Domenico Mazzocchi, and entitled La Catena d'Adone (The chain of Adonis). The story is about the enchantress Falsirena who has fallen in love with Adonis. When he resists her approaches she binds him with an invisible magic chain. She then finds out that he is in love with Venus. She decides to trick him by taking on the appearance of Venus. She fails when Venus herself turns up and sets Adonis free. Venus orders her son Cupid (Amore) to bind Falsirena with the chain she had used for Adonis.

It was largely due to the negative attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities that the genre of opera was only slowly embraced. Sometimes the honour of being the first opera is given to La Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo by Emilio de' Cavalieri which was performed in Rome in 1600. This piece was a morality play: man is tempted to look for happiness in earthly things, but characters around him try to make him realise that true happiness can only be found in eternal life. Interestingly, La Catena d'Adone links up with this moral tenor of De' Cavalieri's 'opera'. It is an allegory: the moral message is not included in the opera itself - as in La Rappresentazione - but is explained in an addition to the score. Falsirena is a symbol for the human soul whose reason can easily be overcome by sense. Adonis symbolises man who, far from God, makes many mistakes. Only when God intervenes does the human soul return to the path of celestial pleasures. The moral tenor can be explained from the fact that it was commissioned by Giovanni Giorgio Aldobrandini, the brother of Cardinal Ippolito Aldrobrandini, whose service Mazzocchi had entered, probably in 1621. There are reasons to believe, though, that the Cardinal itself was the man who was really responsible for the commission.

At the time Mazzocchi was a highly respected composer. He was born in Civita Castellana where he studied at the seminary. He took lower orders in 1606 and was ordained priest in 1619. In 1614 he had settled in Rome where he obtained the right of citizenship. At the same time his brother Virgilio worked in Rome as a composer of sacred and secular vocal music. In several ways their careers were intertwined.

La Catena d'Adone is in a prologue and five acts. Every act ends with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds. There are no instrumental movements; in this performance the prologue and acts 2 to 5 begin with a Sinfonia by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, one of the most celebrated theorbo players of that time in Rome. The Sinfonias are taken from one of his only two collections of instrumental music for other instruments than his own, the Libro I di sinfonie a 4 of 1615. The only instrumental passages in the opera itself are some ritornelli. A variety of basso continuo instruments has been brought together and these are allocated to the various protagonists according to their character. Apart from common instruments like the theorbo, the archlute, the harp, harpsichord and organ a brass-strung harpsichord is used as well as a spinettina and tiorbino, the latter being higher-pitched variants of the better-known spinet and theorbo respectively. The lirone was also often used at the time, which is especially suited for laments and passages of sadness.

The opera almost exclusively consists of recitatives, and reflect the ideal of recitar cantando, speechlike singing. There are some passages of a more lyrical character, though, pointing in the direction of what was to become the aria. It is not only the declamatory character of the music which allows the protagonists to express their feelings, Mazzocchi also makes use of daring harmony, uncommon intervals and chromaticism to make the various affetti come across.

Among the dramatic highlights is the confrontation between Falsirena and Adonis in Act 3. In Act 4 it is the moment when the enchantress vividly expresses her rage when she finds out that Venus is the lover of Adonis. Act 5 begins with a moment of great expression, when Adonis sings a lament about his fate: under the spell of Falsirena and far away from his lover Venus. These moments come off brilliantly in the interpretations of the two main singers. Luciana Mancini gives an outstanding rendition of the role of Falsirena. Every aspect of the text is brought out, and she completely masters the art of recitar cantando. Reinoud Van Mechelen is excellent in his portrayal of Adonis, and the performance of the lament at the beginning of Act 5 is very moving. The other singers are no less impressive, especially Marie de Roy in the important role of Idonia and Olivier Berten as Oraspe. Nicolas Achten sings Arsete well, but in the small role of Pluto I would have preferred a real bass instead of Achten's light baritone. The playing of the instrumentalists is of the highest order, and they eloquently underline the emotional and dramatic keypoints in the opera.

The booklets of this label always look nice. This one is a little sloppy: Arsete is printed as Areste in the track-list and on the back of the case. There are several printing errors, and the English translation of Achten's (excellent) liner-notes should have been edited more carefully. The booklet includes French and English translations of the libretto, but unfortunately these are not fully synchronized. As a result often the Italian text is at the top of one page and the English translation at the bottom. That makes it hard to follow the original and the translation simultaneously, which is especially important to an understanding of the connection between text and music. This lay-out is not very user-friendly.

That said, this is a very important production. It is important from a historical perspective as it brings to us the first opera ever performed in Rome. Musically it is impressive because of the high quality of Mazzocchi's music which testifies to his stature as one of the most important composers of his time. Last but not least the standard of the performances is very high, without any real weak moments. If you like 17th-century operas, don't miss this one. It will be a jewel in your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Scherzi Musicali

CD Reviews