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CD reviews

Italian cantatas & arias

[I] "Officina Romana - A Wonder Lab at the Dawn of the 18th Century"
Carlo Vistoli, alto
Le Stagioni
Dir: Paolo Zanzu
rec: July 24 - 27, 2020, Semur-en-Auxois (F), Théâtre du Rampart
Arcana - A485 (© 2021) (68'30")
Liner-notes: E/F/IT; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Il martirio di Santa Caterina (sinfonia); Carlo Francesco CESARINI (c1666-1741): Giunio Bruto ovvero La caduta de' Tarquini (act 1) (Che far deggio, o stelle, che?); Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Sonata in A, op. 5,9 (preludio; giga); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno (HWV 46a) (Crede l'uom ch'egli riposi; sonata; 'Sonata de l'overtura'); La Resurrezione (HWV 47) (Naufragando va per l'onde); Sonata in c minor, op. 2,1 (HWV 386a) (andante; allegro); Suite in B flat (HWV 434) (prelude); Nicola Francesco HAYM (1678-1729): Sonata No. 1 in a/e minor; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Bella dama di nome Santa; Il giardino di rose (Starò nel mio boschetto); Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in g minor (K 12)

Tiam Goudarzi, recorder; Rodrigo López Paz, recorder, oboe; Daniel Lanthier, oboe; Tami Troman, Roldán Bernabé-Carrión, Augusta McKay Lodge, Izleh Henry, violin; Liv Heym, violin, viola; Marie Legendre, viola; Marco Frezzato, cello; Michele Zeoli, double bass; Manuel de Grange, theorbo, guitar; Paolo Zanzu, harpsichord, fortepiano, organ

[II] "Angelica diabolica"
Giulia Semenzato, soprano
Kammerorchester Basel
rec: Jan 2021, Basel, Don Bosco
Alpha - 830 (© 2022) (51'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Alcina (HWV 34) (Mi restano le lagrime); Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11) (Desterò dall'empia Dite); Ariodante (HWV 33) (Volate amori); Orlando (HWV 31) (Non potrà dirmi); Carlo Francesco POLLAROLO (1653-1723): Ariodante (Quella man che mi condanna); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): L'Angelica (Mentre rendo a te la vita; Costante e fedele); Luigi ROSSI (c1597-1653): Il palazzo incantato (Si tocchi tamburo; Sol per breve momento); Bernardo SABADINI (c1650-1718): Angelica nel catai (Mi vedrà più fiera in campo); Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728): Orlando generoso (Se t'eclissi)

Thomas Meraner, Francesco Capraro, oboe; Simon Lilly, trumpet; Letizia Viola, bassoon; Baptiste Lopez, Valentina Giusti Durand, Tamás Vásárhely, Elisabeth Kohler, Stefano Barneschi, Eva Miribung, Mirjam Steymans-Brenner, Regula Keller, violin; Pablo de Pedro Cano, Bodo Friedrich, Carlos Vallés García, viola; Martin Zeller, Georg Dettweiler, cello; Stefan Preyer, double bass; Juan 'Azul' Sebastiàn Lima, theorbo; Giorgio Paronuzzi, harpsichord

"Freely conceived on the basis of the available historical documents, Officina Romana recreates an imaginary soirée, a conversazione, a liberal reunion of noble spirits, at the house of a Roman cardinal." This explains and justifies the variety in the programme of the first disc under review here, which includes arias from large-scale vocal works (opera, oratorio), a cantata da camera as well as instrumental music in various scorings. Obviously, such a programme is speculative: we don't know exactly what was performed at the gatherings of the academies, which existed in many cities in Italy in the decades around 1700. However, we do know what kind of music was performed, and that may well be what is on the programme here.

Often I have noted that a recording's concept is quite interesting, but is not worked out in a convincing manner. One of the shortcomings is often a lack of discipline in the selection of music. That is also the case here, I'm afraid. From one of Corelli's sonatas for violin Op. 5, two movements are played on the recorder. These sonatas were very popular across Europe, and they were indeed performed on the recorder. However, it is questionable whether they were played that way in Italy, and especially in Rome. There this instrument doesn't seem to have been very popular at the time, in contrast, for instance, to Naples. It was in England that publishers printed versions for recorder. It seems not very likely that these were known in Rome, and the booklet does not indicate that one of these versions has been used.

Alessandro Scarlatti worked in Rome and in Naples. Here we get a cantata for solo voice and basso continuo, with an obbligato part for recorder. Again, given the popularity of the recorder in Naples, this work may have been written there. Whether such a piece, that has not been printed, was known in Rome, is hard to say. It is not impossible, but it is not the most obvious choice to be included in a programme that wants to show what may have been performed in the conversazione of an academy in Rome. Even more problematic is the choice of two movements from a trio sonata by Handel, written and published in England. Again, it seems unlikely that such a work was known in Rome.

In comparison, the selection of arias from large-scale works is more convincing. Especially interesting is 'Che far deggio, o stelle, che?', an aria by Carlo Francesco Cesarini from the opera Giunio Bruto ovvero La caduta de' Tarquini (1711), which was composed by three composers, each taking care of one act; the other composers were Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara. The opera has never been performed, and therefore this aria is the very first performance ever. Handel is also represented with music from vocal works he wrote during his stay in Italy. And then we have a sonata for cello by Nicola Francesco Haym, who would work closely with Handel in England. This sonata is preserved in the Milan Conservatory.

As far as the performances are concerned, I have mixed feelings about Carlo Vistoli. I have heard some quite good performances, and here he is at his best in the Scarlatti cantata. The arias by Cesarini and Handel are disappointing, though, because of his pretty heavy vibrato. Tiam Goudarzi's recorder playing is nice, and so is Marco Frezzato's performance of Haym's cello sonata. The different line-up in the two movements from Handel's Sonata in c minor is rather odd: the andante is played on recorder, two violins, cello and fortepiano, the allegro on oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord. It is also a mystery to me, why an organ is involved in the performance of Scarlatti's cantata.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this disc. The concept has not been worked out in a consistent manner, and the performances are different in quality.

Not many poets have had such a huge influence in music history as Ludovico Ariosti with his epic poem Orlando furioso, which was published in 1516. It is inspired by the medieval chanson de geste. That is a 'song of heroic deeds', but the special feature of Ariosti's poem is that here chivalry is mixed with romance. "[Ariosto] to some extent undermines this archetype of the knight, inherited from the medieval chansons de geste, by choosing to give greater prominence to the love lives of his heroes than to their military exploits. It is no coincidence that the first canto of the work assigns equal dignity to the themes of love and war – moreover, it places its female protagonists in a position of pre-eminence: 'Le donne, i cavallier, l'arme, gli amori, / le cortesie, l'audaci imprese io canto' (of ladies and of knights, of arms and love, / of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing)", Giovanni Andrea Sechi states in the booklet to the disc "Angelica diabolica". Angelica is one of the characters in this recital of opera arias, but not the only one. Several female characters from the poem are passing, by means of arias from operas written in the 17th and the first half of the 18th century. The programme starts with Luigi Rossi's Il palazzo incantato, where we meet Marfisa and Bradamante. Then Angelica can be heard in operas by Porpora, Sabadini, Steffani and Handel. Next we meet Ginevra in two operas with the same title: Ariodante, set by Handel and Pollarolo. From Handel's Alcina we get an aria by the sorceress of that name. The recital closes with one of Handel's most famous arias, 'Desterò dall'empia Dite' from Amadigi di Gaula. It is an aria of the sorceress Melissa, who does appear in Orlando furioso, but the plot of the libretto is based on a different source.

Discs with arias from operas are very popular among singers, as they are a good vehicle to present their skills to the musical world. Often the arias they select are comparable with the 'suitcase arias' of the stars from the baroque era. The problem is that they are isolated from their dramatic context. It is true that arias could be used in different operas, and that their content is mostly not specifically related to the plot. That said, in order to assess the way they are performed, it is very useful to know when and in what context they were sung in the opera. It is unlikely that every listener has such a knowledge of opera librettos or of Ariosti's poem that he will recognize the situation. Whereas in a dramatic context the way the situation or a character is portrayed may compensate for shortcomings in the musical realisation, that is different in a recording without context and without any staging. Unfortunately, it is my experience that most recital discs fail in the stylistic department, and the disc by Giulia Semenzato is no exception. Two problems are returning in almost any recording of this kind. The first is an incessant vibrato, which is often rather wide. Too many singers seem not to be aware that vibrato should not be applied indiscriminately, and most directors of a performance or recording seem not to care. The second issue is the application of ornamentation and the insertion of cadenzas. It cannot be appreciated enough when singers add ornaments; it is an essential part of performance practice. However, stylistically the ornamentation is often highly debatable. It is no exception, if a singer rewrites complete lines in a dacapo. That is certainly not required; neither is the habit of crossing the range of a part in a cadenza.

As far as this particular recording is concerned, in 'Si tocchi tamburo' from Il palazzo incantato by Luigi Rossi, Angelica sings coloratura passages in imitation of the trumpet. The aria opens with the phrase: "Let the drums beat", and here we hear percussion. I have not seen the score, but I doubt whether this was required by the composer. It seems more likely that the singer and the instrumental ensemble are required to imitate the sound effects described in the text. Furthermore, in the later arias the orchestra, with eight violins and three violas, seems a bit too small; that goes especially for Handel, where a more powerful sound seems appropriate. To sum up, those who do care about a vocal performance practice that is in line with the baroque aesthetic ideals, should stay away from this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Giulia Semenzato
Carlo Vistoli
Kammerorchester Basel
Le Stagioni

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