musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Adolf HASSE (1699 - 1783): Serpentes ignei in deserto, oratorio

Valérie Gabail (Angelus), Isabelle Poulenard (Josue), soprano; Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Eliab, Nathanael), mezzosoprano; Annette Markert (Moyses), contralto; Robert Expert (Eleazar), alto
Les Paladins
Dir: Jérôme Correas

rec: Sept 18, 2005 (live), Ambronay, Abbaye
Ambronay Éditions - AMY005 (© 2006) (78'30")

In the 1730's Johann Adolf Hasse was one of the most fashionable and sought-after composers of Europe. Several employers tried to win him over to enter their service, for instance the courts of Dresden and Vienna, but also the Ospedali of Venice. It was the Ospedale degli Incurabili which succeeded in appointing him as maestro di coro in the mid-1730's. For this institution he composed the oratorio performed and recorded in the Abbey of Ambronay in September 2005.

The oratorio was one of the most popular genres of music in the 18th century. Although the origin of the oratorio goes further back than Giacomo Carissimi, he can be considered the 'founding father' of this genre. But since his compositions of this kind, in the middle of the 17th century in Rome, much had changed. The oratorio was usually not written in Latin anymore, but in Italian, and was not part of the liturgy, but performed during public concerts. It also had become considerably more dramatic and theatrical, although it was usually not staged. But stylistically and in the virtuosic nature of the arias it had come close to contemporary opera. In Rome, for instance, oratorios were performed during Lent, as an alternative to operas whose performance was forbidden during this time of the year.

In Venice things were a bit different. Here oratorios were still part of the liturgy and performed as an introduction to the performance of Psalm 50 (51), one of the penitential psalms. As these psalms were especially sung during Lent one may assume this oratorio, written in either 1735-36 or 1739, was also performed during Lent. Its function as introduction to Psalm 50 is underlined by the end of the oratorio which is a recitative by the Angel, urging the audience to "sing the sacred poem of the Prophet", referring to King David.

Oratorios performed during Lent traditionally referred to the Passion of Jesus. That is also the case here. The subject is taken from the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers from the Old Testament. The people are revolting against God and his servant Moses. This leads to Gods wrath, and as Moses asks for forgiveness on behalf of the people an angel tells him: "Almighty God will bear all offences, but there is one crime He refuses to pardon. Your people have scorned the sacred manna: that food of salvation, that delicious, sweet bread of the angels mystically foreshadows the sacred, sublime, august feast that Christ will prepare for His elect". God then sends venomous serpents among the people. When they recognize their sins and return to God Moses is ordered to make a serpent of brass and to put it on a pole. When those bitten by the serpents would look at the serpent of brass they would not die. This serpent is another reference to Jesus: in the recitative which leads to the last aria Moses explains: "In this serpent I perceive the mysteries of heaven. Christ, sent to earth to redeem the world, raised up on the Cross, will free mortals from an atrocious death by His divine blood, and will himself heal the wounds of sin". Like the serpent of brass was put on a hole, so will Christ be put on the Cross.
The oratorio then ends with a recitative of the Angel: "Behold, Israel has come back to the Lord and has obtained pardon for her sin; let us also return penitently to God (...)", a reference to the Lamentations sung during Holy Week, with its repeated refrain "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God".

Unlike most oratorios of the time Serpentes ignei del deserto (The fiery serpents in the desert) is written in one part - most oratorios of the time had two - and in Latin. But otherwise this oratorio marks the development of the genre towards an equivalent of opera. Four of the six characters have one aria, two - Moses and the Angel - have two, and there is one duet of Joshua and Eleazar. All these arias are written in dacapo style and often very virtuosic, with sometimes long coloraturas. They are alternated by recitatives, which are partly secco and partly accompagnato. Hasse often goes from the former to the latter when the drama intensifies. It is one of the ways Hasse expresses the content of the libretto.

Although there are several passages in the arias where the text is directly translated into music - for instance to depict the appearance of the serpents -, Hasse uses musical means mostly in a more general way to express the character and content of an aria, like chromaticism, dissonances and the choice of keys. The operatic character is underlined by the inclusion of two arie di tempesta, where the image of a storm is used to express extreme anger. There is also a lament when the people are visited by Gods wrath. Whereas arias usually have a reflective character, bringing the action to a standstill, as it were, here the aria of Nathanael ('Furit grando procellosa') is used to vividly describe the ordeal the people are facing.

The casting of the oratorio is well thought-over. Valérie Gabail has the perfect voice for the role of the Angel, and Isabelle Poulenard's sweet voice is well-suited to sing the role of Joshua, who resists the revolting people and sticks to his trust in God. Stéphanie d'Oustrac has a strong and dramatic voice which makes her an ideal interpreter of the role of Eliab, who in the first aria of the oratorio expresses the people's feelings of resistance. She also gives an excellent performance of the above-mentioned aria by Nathanael. Annette Markert has two strongly contrasting arias to sing: the first is a rage aria in which Moses expresses his anger about the people's revolt, the second is the last aria of the oratorio in which Moses looks forward to Jesus' Passion. She sings them both splendidly. Lastly the only man in the cast, Robert Expert. Considering the fact this oratorio was written for and performed by the girls of the Ospedale degli Incurabili another female singer had been more appropriate, but Robert Expert gives a fine account of the role of Eleazar: he sings the lamento-aria 'Dolore pleni' with the right amount of expression. The orchestra matches the performances of the singers and fully explores the effects Hasse has used.

This is a very interesting production for several reasons. First of all, it is mostly oratorios written for Rome or Vienna on Italian librettos which are performed and recorded, whereas oratorios for the Venetian orphanages are less well known. Secondly, if any works by Hasse are recorded it is mostly his secular vocal music, like operas and intermezzos which is given attention to. Not many of his oratorios have been recorded so far.
And as the performance is an impressive testimony to the dramatic power of Johann Adolf Hasse, there is every reason to strongly recommend this production.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Les Paladins

CD Reviews