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Alessandro STRADELLA (1639 - 1682): "Lagrime e sospiri"

Chantal Santon Jeffery, soprano
Agathe Peyrat, soprano [echo]a
Galilei Consort
Dir: Benjamin Chénier

rec: Feb 6 - 9, 2017, Paris, Temple du Bon Secours
Alpha - 297 (© 2017) (58'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

La forza dell'amor paterno, opera (1678) (O morire, o libertà; Ferma, regina, ascolta - Morirò, rec & aria; Presto, corri ad armarti! - Non vedi che Giove, rec & arioso; Lasso, che feci); La Susanna, oratorio (1681) (overture; Da chi spero aita, o cieli!); Le gare dell'amore eroico (1679) (overture); Moro per amore, opera (1681) (overture; A che tardi a morir, misero core; Furie terribilia; Col mio sangue comprarei; Per pietà); San Giovanni Battista, oratorio (1675) (overture; Deh che più tardi - Queste lagrime e sospiri, rec & aria); Santa Pelagia, oratorio (overture; Strugge l'alma; Quanto mi alletta - Sono i crini aurati stami, rec & aria)

Benjamin Chénier, Bérangère Maillard, Matthieu Camilleri, Tiphaine Coquempot, violin; Géraldine Roux, Clara Mühlethaler, violin, viola; François Gallon, Cécile Vérolles, cello; André Heinrich, archlute; Yoann Moulin, harpsichord, organ

Alessandro Stradella was one of the most celebrated singers - contemporaries compared him with Orpheus - and composers of 17th-century Italy. In the latter capacity he contributed to almost every genre in his time. He composed both vocal and instrumental music, although, being a singer himself, the former was clearly the focus of his activities. He wrote a considerable number of pieces for the stage and a large number of cantatas as well as arias, duets and trios. He composed seven oratorios. Six of them have survived; the best-known is San Giovanni Battista, about John the Baptist, who is beheaded by King Herod at the request of his daughter.

This disc brings together arias from some of Stradella's oratorios and some of his operas. The liner-notes, written by Barbara Nestola, reveal the considerations which were at the basis of the selection of the arias. "During the second half of the seventeenth century, oratorio developed along the same lines as opera, notably in places where the latter genre was frowned on by papal censorship, as in Rome. Thus, for example, librettists chose subjects whose protagonists were seductive women, often desired by several men. Drawn from episodes in the Bible or the Lives of the saints, these heroines are figures like Judith, Susanna, Mary Magdalene or Esther, whose courage and boldness are equalled only by their beauty. Composers devoted emblematic pieces to them, to emphasise their powers of seduction or to illustrate the conflict between appearance and reality. Stradella's oratorios too explore this feminine universe, breathing life into a series of seductresses, whether unintentional (Susanna), hardened (Salome) or struggling with their consciences (Pelagia)."

There can be little doubt that there is a close connection between opera and oratorio in Stradella's time and particularly in his oeuvre. Six of his extant oratorios belong among the subgenre of the oratorio volgare, an oratorio on a libretto in the vernacular. Oratorios were treated as substitutes for opera, especially in Rome, where the ecclesiastical authorities were very critical of opera, for moral reasons, and worried about their growing attraction. The solo roles in oratorios were probably mostly sung by the opera stars of the time. The fact that the main roles are mostly in the soprano range, suggests that they were sung by castratos.

That said, one should not overlook that oratorios were in the first place intended to express the moral teachings of the Counter Reformation. The oratorio volgare was born around 1600; the first specimen was Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. Most of Stradella's oratorios were written for performance in Rome, which was a centre of the Counter Reformation. From that angle this disc documents only one possible approach to the repertoire.

The programme opens with extracts from Moro per amore, an opera from 1681 on a libretto by Favio Orsini. We hear three arias of Eurinda, Queen of Sicily, who is in love with Floridoro, Prince of Cyprus, who disguises himself as a Moorish slave; hence the title of the opera, 'A Moor for the sake of love'. These arias are different in character. Notable is the second, 'Furie terribili', which ends with a recitative which includes an echo; this was frequently used in dramatic works from the first half of the 17th century, and considering the year of composition it has to be considered a relic of the past. The third aria is interrupted by a short recitative.

Next follow the overture and an aria with its preceding recitative from the oratorio San Giovanni Battista. The recitative has in fact the character of an arioso, as several sections are repeated. It is remarkable that Stradella has written out all the ornaments and coloratura; the treatment of the word "discolora" (besmirch) is particularly notable. The ensuing aria is full of harmonic tension, especially in the string parts.

La forza dell’amor paterno is another opera, performed in Genoa in 1678, but not a totally original work. It was in fact the reworking of the opera Seleuco by Antonio Sartorio, premiered in Venice in 1666. Stradella added a mad scene for Antioco, scored for a soprano. The first two arias are of a lamenting nature and are set in a highly expressive manner. They are followed by a sequence of recitatives and ariosos, and the last aria is a setting of a pretty long text without dacapos, reflecting the fact that the dacapo was not a fixed part of music for the stage as yet.

Whereas Susanna, Esther and John the Baptist are all familiar characters, which have been the subject of quite a number of compositions in the course of time, Santa Pelagia is virtually unknown. It seems that Stradella is one of only two composers who took her as the subject of an oratorio, the other one being Marcantonio Ziani (c1653-1715). This oratorio belongs among the category of the morality; one of the best-known specimens of this genre is Cavalieri's Rappresentatione, mentioned above. Such pieces are about a particular character - in this case Santa Pelagia, scored for soprano - who has to make a choice between good and evil. "Derived from fifth century Greek hagiography, the story of Pelagia (...) tells the tale of a dancer and prostitute in Antioch whose beauty inspired Nonnus, the Bishop of Edessa, with the words for a moral address to the priests taking part with him at a synod. Deeply touched by the bishop's words, Pelagia underwent conversion and was baptised, renouncing her life of sin and heading for Jerusalem, where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse in a small cell on the Mount of Olives" (synopsis from the booklet to the recording by the Ensemble Mare Nostrum, to be reviewed here shortly). We hear two arias, separated by a recitative, from the stage where Pelagia turns away from the vanities of the world. In the third aria she considers the dangers of human beauty: "Flowing locks are (...) lucky serpents of gold".

The disc ends with the aria 'Deh che spero alta, o Cieli' from La Susanna. The libretto is based on the 13th chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches placed this chapter with the deuterocanonical parts of the Bible; Martin Luther called them the Apocrypha. The story is set in Babylon, in the time the Jews were living there in captivity. Two elderly men, called 'judges' in the libretto, fall in love with Susanna, a virtuous woman, married to Joakim. When they see her bathing in her garden, they try to seduce her, but she rejects them. They then accuse her of adultery. She is sentenced to death, but then the prophet Daniel intervenes. He asks the judges where the act of adultery had taken place. As their answers don't match, they are sentenced to death themselves and Susanna is set free. The aria included here is based on a basso ostinato, a popular device in the 17th century.

This disc is an attractive mixture of more or less well-known parts of Stradella's oeuvre and extracts from pieces which are hardly known, if at all. In particular Stradella's operas are very seldom performed. The oratorios as well as the operas show that he was an excellent composer for the voice, not surprising considering his own skills as a singer. Chantal Santon Jeffery turns out to be a pretty much ideal interpreter. She has a beautiful and flexible voice, and deals with impressive ease with the sometimes demanding coloratura. Even more important are her capabilities in the realm of expression. The arias from San Giovanni Battista and La Susanna are some of the highlights, but she does equally well in the more dramatic pieces. There is some vibrato here and there, but it is rather slow and quiet and therefore not disturbing. In some passages she demonstrates an impressive breath control on long notes, which also include some effective dynamic shading.

The instrumental ensemble is of the same high standard. Just one issue needs to be mentioned: the extracts from Santa Pelagia open with an overture, and in the vocal items the strings are also involved. However, there are reasons to believe that these string parts are not authentic, and have been added by another hand. This is not mentioned in the liner-notes.

This is a most enjoyable disc which reveals the many qualities of Stradella as a composer of vocal music. The interpreters serve him exceptionally well.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Chantal Santon Jeffery
Galilei Consort

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