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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): Il Martirio di Santa Teodosia

Emmanuelle de Negri (Teodosia), soprano; Anthea Pichanick (Decio), contralto; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arsenio), tenor; Renato Dolci (Urbano), bass
Les Accents
Dir: Thibault Noally

rec: Sept 9 - 12, 2019, Paris, Église allemande Protestante
Aparté - AP232 (© 2020) (74'57")
Liner-notes: E/F/IT; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Thibault Noally, Alexandrine Caravassilis, Mario Konaka, Heide Sibley, Claire Sottovia, Paula Waisman, Agnieszka Rychlik, Sayaka Ohira, violin; David Glidden, Marie-Aude Guyon, viola; Anne-Garance Fabre dit Garrus, viola da gamba; Elisa Joglar, cello; Clotilde Guyon, double bass; Nicolas André, bassoon; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Mathieu Dupouy, harpsichord; Luca Oberti, organ

In addition to his many secular cantatas and operas, Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a considerable number of oratorios. Over the last couple of decades, several of them have been released on disc, some are even available in more than one recording. Il Martirio di Santa Teodosia seems to have escaped the attention of performers. I could only find a recording from the 1960s, in traditional style on modern instruments. In 2012, Eduardo López Banzo was responsible for several live performances; in my collection I have the recording of such a performance in Hamburg. However, it never seems to have been released on disc. From that perspective, this new recording has to be welcomed as the first on period instruments.

It is a rather early work, which is a mixture of traditional and modern elements. A copy of the libretto, whose author is not known, was printed in 1686 in Mantua, and calls it an oratorio di Roma. A scholar suggests that Scarlatti's setting was first performed three years before in Rome; that is two years before a performance in Modena, which New Grove mentions as its first performance. It is no coincidence that so many oratorios were performed in Rome. The ecclesiastical authorities, whose power was considerably greater in Rome than elsewhere (for instance in Venice), were very suspicious with regard to opera, by far the most popular form of musical entertainment at the time. Oratorios - a genre developed by Giacomo Carissimi in the mid-17th century in Rome - was considered a 'safe' alternative to opera. With time, it increasingly moved in the direction of opera, both dramatically and musically. Il Martirio di Santa Teodosia is a good example.

Whereas some oratorios were based on biblical subject, the lives of saints and martyrs were also popular among librettists. The present oratorio is about such a martyr: Theodosia, who - according to tradition - lived around 300. Aged seventeen, she moved from Lebanon to Caesarea in Palestine. Here she comforted Christians who were held prisoners. She was arrested and, after several tortures, was decapitated in 308. The libretto opens with Arsenio declaring his love for Theodosia. His confidant, Decio, assures him that she will be his wife. However, Thedosia refuses as she wants to remain constant in her love for God. She prefers to die rather than give in to Arsenio. She says so in the recitative that closes the first part. In the second part, Urbanio, who is the Roman governor and Arsenio's father, promises Theodosia that her wish will come true, to the dismay of his son. He asks for mercy, but Urbanio and Decio say that she deserves death. Theodosia herself encourages them to execute her. And so it happens. The oratorio ends with a chorus, expressing the moral, as was customary in such works: "The martyrdom of Theodosia shows clearly that for one who dies for God, Death is life".

Oratorios of that time usually had only a small number of characters; together they took care of the choruses. This oratorio has four different characters and just one chorus. It opens with a short sinfonia; in this recording it is preceded by a separate piece from Scarlatti's pen, the Sonata a 4 in c minor. Whether one thinks it was needed or not, it certainly is a good choice, considering that the sinfonia is in the same key as are two vocal items: the closing chorus and Arsenio's first aria. In addition, the other keys are closely related to C minor; nine arias are in the minor.

The oratorio comprises a sequence of recitatives and arias. Some of the recitatives end with an arioso. Theodosia has most of the arias: nine out of eighteen. Arsenio has four arias, Urbano three and Decio two. Part One includes a duo and a trio, and each part has a quartet (the one in Part Two is the concluding chorus). Theodosia's arias are the most expressive, and some of them are also the longest: her last aria ('Spirti beati') takes a little under seven minutes, 'Se il Cielo m'invita' in the first part is close to eight minutes. In her first aria, Theodosia is quite assertive: "I am constant, and faithful in love: my heart is adamant, and when assailed by a new love, it will always fight ruthlessly". Scarlatti has written a brillant aria here, which includes many coloraturas that are to be sung allegro. The other arias are more reflective and expressive, as here she proclaims her willingness to die. 'Mi piace il morire' and ''Soccorretemi Cieli fedeli' are among the highlights of this oratorio.

There is no lack of coloratura in other arias as well, and overall quite a number of arias are of a virtuosic nature. It shows the development of the oratorio in the direction of opera. The time of composition explains why the arias take different forms. A number of them are strophic, but the dacapo form, which was to become the standard towards the end of the century, dawns in this work, as a number of stanzas show an ABA pattern. Others are through-composed; one is bipartite and one has an ABB structure. The orchestra, comprising strings and basso continuo, has different roles. In some arias it plays the ritornelli, which was common in earlier oratorios, such as Stradella's San Giovanni Battista, but in this oratorio it has a concertante role in more than half of the arias, which increases their dramatic nature.

This oratorio is quite dramatic anyway, due to its subject, but also thanks to Scarlatti's setting of the libretto. That comes off quite well in this recording. As we have seen, the role of Theodosia is quite differentiated, and Emmanuelle de Negri shows both sides of her personality convincingly. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro conveys the feelings of Arsenio with conviction, and Anthea Pichanick's voice and way of singing does justice to the confidence expressed by Decio. Renato Dolcini personifies Urbano well, for instance in his brillant aria 'L'offendere un Rege'. Technically, this is singing at a high level; all of the soloists deal with the coloratura with impressive ease.

However, it is not without a reason that I referred to this performance as the first on period instruments, avoiding the term 'historical performance practice'. The playing of the ensemble leaves nothing to be desired. It is one of the strenghts of this recording. Unfortunately, the singing is a different case altogether. I greatly appreciate the way the soloists impersonate the characters in this piece and explore the dramatic and expressive features of this work. However, the incessant and often obtrusive vibrato of all the singers - in various degrees - is hard to swallow and severely compromises my assessment of this recording. To some extent, one could accept this if it was the result of an artistic decision - and then decide to stay away from it - but I doubt whether this issue has been given any thought. Take, for instance, the performances of Emmanuelle de Negri, whose vibrato is mostly the widest. In her first and most dramatic aria, her vibrato is wild and wide, whereas in the other arias she often reduces it. I can't see any reason for that, if it was used for expressive reasons. The faster the tempo, the wider the vibrato. This seems a technical deficiency rather than an artistic decision.

Whatever is the case, this aspect of the performance prevents me from recommending this recording, except to those who don't care very much about the style of singing. Considering the excellent quality of this work, both musically and dramatically, and the fact that no other recording is available, it is rather sad that I can't assess this recording more positively.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Anthea Pichanick
Renato Dolcini
Les Accents

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