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Antonio CALDARA (1670 - 1736): Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo

Emmanuelle de Negri (Maddalena), Maïlys de Villoutreys (Marta), soprano; Benedetta Mazzucato (Amor Terreno), contralto; Damien Guillon (Amor Celeste), alto; Reinoud Van Mechelen (Cristo), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Fariseo), baritone
Le Banquet Céleste
Dir: Damien Guillon

rec: Oct 2 - 3, 2017 (live), Rennes, Opéra & Oct 4, 2017 [studio]
Alpha - 426 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.08'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet (*)

Caroline Bayet, Birgit Goris, Simon Pierre, Fiona-Emilie Poupard, Adrien Carre, Marion Korkmaz, violin; Deirdre Dowling, Géraldine Roux, viola; Julien Barre, Cyril Poulet, cello; Gautier Blondel, double bass; Diego Salamanca, lute; François Guerrier, harpsichord; Kevin Manent, harpsichord, organ

Antonio Caldara was one of the main composers in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. He held several prestigious posts, first in Rome and later in Vienna, as vice-Kapellmeister and court composer at the imperial court, since 1716. His oeuvre is large, and includes operas, oratorios and serenatas, as well as liturgical works and some instrumental music. From this angle it is rather odd that so little of his output is available on disc. It is true that in recent years performers show an increasing interest in his oeuvre. Over the years I have heard a number of live recordings of, for instance, his oratorios, but unfortunately very few of these have made it to disc. The present recording concerns one of his best-known oratorios. It was recorded for the first time by René Jacobs and released by Harmonia mundi in 1995. It has been performed live several times since then, for instance by Václav Luks last year. It would not surprise me, if that would result in a commercial release. With the present recording, directed by Damien Guillon, that would bring the number of recordings to three. The popularity of this oratorio is understandable, as it is a splendid work, but even so, one would wish performers to look beyond this work and delight us with recordings of some of the many oratorios, which are still lying in libraries and archives.

There is no lack of material to choose from. Only in the genre of the oratorio, Caldara produced around 40 pieces, which span almost his entire career. The first date from his time in Venice, where the oratorio had been introduced to the public by Giovanni Legrenzi, who may have been Caldara's teacher. It seems likely that Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo also was first performed there. Three of his oratorios can be dated at this period, the last years of the 17th century. The early date of composition is confirmed by the instrumental scoring in five parts. The writing of two viola parts is typical of the 17th century.

The subject of this oratorio, a story about Mary Magdalene (one of the followers of Jesus, who drove seven demons out of her), was quite popular at the time. Caldara's oratorio is a setting of a libretto by Lodovico Forni, who is otherwise unknown. Giovanni Maria Bononcini was the first to set it, but Caldara's text is different in several respects. With Martha, it includes character which is omitted in the libretto Bononcini used, possibly the original version. The number of arias is strongly reduced and a number of texts included in Bononcini's setting have been rewritten.

Oratorios were usually intended for the period of Lent, which was a time of repentance and penance, and also the time when the opera was closed. In some ways oratorio was the alternative to opera. At first sight this oratorio fits in the tradition of the morality play. Such pieces were about a central character, often called 'anima' (Soul), who has to decide which path in life to follow, either that of virtue - leading to Heaven - or that of worldly pleasures. Several allegorical characters try to convince him/her to choose one or the other option. In the end he/she decides to follow the way to Heaven. However, this oratorio is a bit different. First of all, the main character is not an abstract or allegorical figure, but a biblical person. Secondly, the other personalities are a mixture of allegorical characters and biblical figures, but they cannot be divided into two camps. In morality plays there are usually two opposing groups, but here it is a bit different. One the one hand we hear the bicker between Amor Celeste (Heavenly Love) and Amor Terreno (Wordly Love). Later in the oratorio two biblical figures enter the scene: Christ (Cristo) and a Pharisee (Fariseo), who are also diametrically opposed. The latter represents the whole group of Pharisees and scribes, who in the four gospels are Christ's main opponents, questioning his authority and denying his claim to be God's Son. The conflict between these two is separated from that between Amor Celeste and Amor Terreno. There is no interaction between Amor Terreno and the Pharisee. The character of Martha is an interesting one. Independent from Amor Celeste she points in the direction of Christ and urges Magdalene to "hurry over where the Nazarene performs his miracles, and listen to his teaching, follow his sacred footsteps. (...) Follow him, he is the way to Paradise".

Martha and Magdalene call each other 'sister'. However, the Martha of the gospels is the sister of Mary of Bethany and of Lazarus, whom Jesus rose from the dead shortly before his Passion. The conflation between the two Mary's has its roots in the early ages of Christianity and was still alive in the time this oratorio was written.

Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo is not dramatic in an operatic way, as there is hardly any action. The dramatic nature of this work is caused by the marked conflicts between the opposing figures. It is in the first place an emotional drama, which comes to the fore especially in the inner conflicts of Mary Magdalene. She does not need much time to decide that she wants to follow the way to Heaven. However, she still feels the temptation of a worldly life and doubts whether she will be forgiven: "Too guilt-laden is Magdalene; my misdeeds and the stench of my sins have rendered me sordid in the eyes of heaven; I feel shy of being forgiven, as mere repentance is not much penitence". Martha tries to help her to overcome her doubts, but the Pharisee attempts to confirm them. Christ enters and tells Magdalene: "If your grief is sincere, forgiveness is certain, and you shall be a memorable example of true penitence".

Most oratorios of the time have the same basic structure. They comprise two parts, and consist of a sequence of recitatives and arias. They often close with a chorus, in which all the characters participate. The latter is not the case here. This oratorio ends with an aria of Magdalene. There are also only a few duets. Nearly all arias have a dacapo structure, but there are two types. The first are arias for voice and basso continuo, which are framed by a ritornello of the strings. They are used for texts of an introspective character. The second type of arias are those, in which the strings participate in the aria itself and accompany the singer. This kind of arias refer to contemporary opera and give way to strong emotions.

A few moments deserve special mention. The first aria is for Amor Terreno, 'Dormi, o cara' (Sleep, my beloved). As one would expect, this is performed in a rather slow tempo. Benedetta Mazzucato impresses here with her excellent breath control. Damien Guillon sings the aria of Amor Celeste, 'La ragione, s'un' alma conseglia' (If reason counsels a soul) with the firmness the text requires. One of the highlights is Magdalene's aria 'In un bivio è il mio volere' (My will is caught between following the world, or Heaven). In her aria 'Pompe inutili' (Useless pomp that adds to splendour), she is accompanied by cello, playing an obbligato part, and basso continuo. According to Brian W. Pritchard, in his liner-notes to René Jacobs's recording, "the meaning of the virtuosic cello obbligato lies in its empty display". There is a nice contrast here between the A and the B section.

In the second part Magdalene has an aria full of despair, in reaction to remarks of the Pharisee: "Dissolved in tears here my heart gives way" ('In lagrime stemprato'). The instrumental accompaniment includes descending figures and Seufzer. Rising figures are used to express the triumphant reply by Amor Celeste to his worldly opponent: "I laugh at your glories, Heaven alone will triumph" ('Me ne rido di tue glorie'). Strong dynamic accents illustrate Amor Terreno's rage aria 'Orribili, terribili': "Hideous, fearsome Furies of the Underworld, lend me your strength". One of the most expressive arias is given to Martha, 'O fortunate lacrime' (O happy tears of a true stricken heart). Magdalene's aria 'Per il mar del pianto mio' (By the sea of my tears I shall scorn the sufferings) is full of pathos; the music includes a repeated rising triad.

I mentioned the fact that this is the second recording of this oratorio. It is different from Jacobs's recording in that it includes several recitatives and arias that are omitted in the latter version (**). According to Jacobs in his notes in the booklet, this was for reasons of "playing time and the capacity of two CDs". His recording takes a little under 2.07'; I don't know what was the maximum capacity of a CD at that time (1995); today CDs with a playing time of 80 minutes or even more are quite common. From that perspective it is rather odd that Guillon also omitted a piece, the duet of Amor Celeste and Amor Terrene in the first part, 'Il sentier ch'ora tu prendi'. In Jacobs's recording it takes less than three minutes, so why was it omitted as Guillon's recording lasts 2.08'? The issue is not discussed in the booklet.

Because this recording is nearly complete, it is an important addition to the catalogue. I have already inditated that it not short on expression. That goes especially for Emmanuelle de Negri as Magdalene and Maïlys de Villoutreys as Martha. They are responsible for some of the most moving moments in this performance. Damien Guillon is also excellent as Amor Celeste. Benedetta Mazzucato takes care of the unpleasant character of Amor Terreno, and does so pretty well. Riccardo Novaro has not the nicest voice, but that is probably just as well, considering his character. Reinoud Van Mechelen is firm and authoritative as Christ. He and Guillon are the only two singers who are almost entirely free of unnecessary vibrato. In particular the three ladies use too much of it, and that is the major flaw of this recording. The playing of the instrumental ensemble tributes considerably to the expression in this recording.

My reservations with regard to aspects of the singing don't prevent me from recommending this recording. Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo is a masterwork, and that comes well to the fore here.

(*) In the digital booklet p 55 (CD 2, tr 34) is missing
(**) CD 1, tracks 15/16, 18/19, 22, 28, 29; CD 2, tracks 6, 26, 27.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Reinoud Van Mechelen
Riccardo Novaro
Le Banquet Céleste

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