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Michelangelo FALVETTI (1642 - 1692): Il diluvio universale, oratorio

Magali Arnault (Acqua), Mariana Flores (Rad), Caroline Weynants (Natura humana), soprano; Evelyn Ramirez Munoz (Giustizia Divina), contralto; Fabián Schofrin (Morte), alto; Fernando Guimarães (Noè), Thibaut Lenaerts (Foco), tenor; Matteo Bellotto (Dio), Benoît Giaux (Terra), bass
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Cappella Mediterranea
Dir: Leonardo García-Alarcón

rec: Sept 6 - 10, 2010, Jujurieux, Espace culturel C.J. Bonnet
Ambronay - AMY026 (© 2011) (64'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & tracklist

Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) is considered the founder of the oratorio genre. Many pieces of this kind were written in the second half of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century. But the genre quickly moved away from Carissimi's model. His subjects were always biblical, close to the biblical narrative, and mostly on a Latin text. Later specimens often had an Italian text, and included dialogues of a non-biblical nature. As time progressed a considerable number were written on non-biblical subjects, like the life of saints. The narrator (historicus) - a key figure in Carissimi's oratorios - disappeared. The oratorio also became increasingly operatic, with more virtuosic arias, and a stronger division between recitative and aria. The role of instruments increased, mostly for dramatic reasons. It comes as no surprise then that in the early 18th century oratorios often featured opera singers.

Il diluvio universale by Michelangelo Falvetti is an interesting specimen of an oratorio which is halfway through this development. The libretto is in Italian and there is no narrator. Although the story is still biblical there are additional (allegorical) characters and non-biblical dialogues. As a result it is considerably longer than Carissimi's oratorios. Whereas the latter's concentrate on narration, Falvetti includes meditative passages. Musically there is still no clear difference between these and the narrative episodes. The arias take different forms, but we are still far away from the da capo aria which would appear in oratorios around the turn of the century.

Little is known about Michelangelo Falvetti, who doesn't have an entry in New Grove. He was born in Palermo and was appointed maestro di cappella of the cathedral in Messina in 1682. In that year this oratorio was also first performed. The libretto was written by Vincenzo Giattini, a famous writer in Palermo at the time. The score has been preserved in manuscript, and doesn't give any information about the characters or the instruments needed. The printed libretto is held in a library in Venice and allows the identification of the characters and which part they are to sing. The instrumental scoring can be established from the list of musicians at Messina Cathedral during the early 1680s. They included four violins, four violas, an archlute, a sackbut and four organists. The score has two treble parts, an alto and a tenor part and a bass part. The parts in alto and tenor clef are taken by two viole da gamba. A lirone is added to the ensemble as are two cornetts which in some episodes are used as alternatives to the violins.

The story is about the Flood as reported in Genesis (Ch 6-8). God is weary of the wickedness of man and decides to destroy him. He saves the life of Noah, his wife and children. With a number of animals they enter the Ark. Then it starts to rain, the water level rises and all people and animals outside of the Ark are engulfed. This is perfect stuff for a dramatic oratorio, and that is exactly what Il diluvio universale is. It is divided into four sections. The first is "In heaven": we hear a sinfonia, and suddenly Divine Justice (Giustizia Divina) enters, announcing the punishment of the world. The Elements are called, and Water (Acqua) is chosen to execute the sentence. The section ends with a highly dramatic chorus: "Let baleful clouds declare war. Let rains, floods, hailstones and storms drench the earth".

Next follows "On earth". We meet Noah and his wife (here called Rad). They express their trust that the Ark will save them. In a dialogue between God and Noah the latter questions the justice of the decision to destroy mankind. God explains to him why he has taken this decision. Then follows "The Flood": it begins with a 'storm symphony' (sinfonia di tempeste) with a chorus in which the voices are split into two groups. They represent mankind trying to flee: "Let us flee, we are going to die". Then Death enters: his rise from "the depths of Erebus" is effectively depicted by a rising scale. It is even more effective here because Fabián Schofrin begins in his chest register and then enters his falsetto range. Human Nature (Natura humana) asks for mercy, acknowledging his foolishness, but to no avail. Death ends this section: "I have conquered a whole world".

The fourth and last section is "In Noah's Ark". A chorus announces the disappearance of the clouds and the return of light. Noah sings: "Gentle Lord, change thy bow of anger into a rainbow of peace". The oratorio ends with a chorus, urging mankind to "pluck the fruits of life from the fair branches of peace".

It is great that this dramatic and enthralling oratorio has been discovered. It was given to Leonardo García-Alarcón in Sicily and he was immediately interested. He decided to perform it during the Ambronay Festival. Like many productions of this festival it was then recorded in the studio. On balance the performance is very good. Evelyn Ramirez Munoz has a dark and strong voice, which is perfectly suited for the role of Divine Justice, and her entrance at the start has a great dramatic effect. It is just a shame she uses a bit too much vibrato now and then. Fernando Guimarães and Mariana Flores make a perfect couple as Noah and Rad, singing beautifully in their duets. Matteo Bellotto takes the role of God; I could imagine a little stronger voice, but he performs his role very well. I already referred to Fabián Schofrin as Death. Apart from the dramatically effective entrance I am not that impressed by his singing. In fact, I wonder whether he would do better as a tenor than as an alto. The role's tessitura is rather low, and it could well be that it was meant to be sung by a high tenor rather than a falsettist. Caroline Weynants gives a fine account of the part of Human Nature. The small roles of the Elements are sung by members of the choir.

García-Alarcón has taken some liberties in regard to the realisation of the score. The use of two cornetts in some episodes is questionable from a historical point of view: at the end of the 17th century the cornett had largely lost its importance and was only seldom used. It doesn't surprise that Messina Cathedral apparently didn't have any cornettists. Most problematic is the use of percussion. Falvetti didn't ask for it, and therefore it is anybody's guess why the Iranian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani should play instruments like zarb, oud and darf here. He does so in some dramatic episodes, but there the music is rhythmically vivid enough as it is. It doesn't do the composer any favours. After all, one of the challenges of any composer was to create a strong dynamic pulse with little means, and Falvetti does so brilliantly. There is no need for 'improvement'. Even more curious is the deployment of percussion in meditative passages. The duet of Noah and Rad, 'Dolce sposo Noè', is introduced by a solo of the percussion which is at odds with its lyrical character. There is nothing wrong with creativity on the part of the interpreters, but there are limits, and these have been crossed. I also wonder what Falvetti has written down in the aria of Human nature, 'La morte ingoio'. The lirone seems to take quite some liberties, which not always seem in line with the idiom of the time.

I am not quite sure whether the choruses should be performed by a choir of 20 singers. In Carissimi's oratorios - and in many later oratorios as well - the choruses were mostly sung by the soloists. Here all choruses are for five voices; in two cases six voices are needed. One of the choruses is split, and that means that ten singers should suffice. Is it a coincidence that there are nine characters in the oratorio? That could well be an indication that they should sing the choruses. Very odd is the duet towards the end, 'Ecco l'iride paciera', which is first sung by two sopranos and then by the sopranos and tenors of the choir.

Various decisions regarding the score are debatable. Whereas most of them may be at least defensible, the use of percussion is definitely not. On the basis of the importance of this recording, the quality of the music and the general level of the performance I recommend this disc. It is the addition of percussion - which I consider a vulgarisation of the score - which dissuades me from considering it one of the discs of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Cappella Mediterranea
Choeur de Chambre de Namur

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