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Johann Joseph FUX (1660 - 1741): La corona d'Arianna

Carlotta Colombo (Arianna), Monica Piccinini (Venere), soprano; Marianne Beate Kielland (Teti), mezzo-soprano; Meili Li (Peleo), Rafał Tomkiewicz (Bacco), alto
Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Zefiro Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Alfredo Bernardini

rec: June 28, 2022, Graz, Helmut List Halle
Arcana - A548 (© 2023) (68'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/IT; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gabriele Cassone, Raphael Pouget, clarino; Simone Amelli, Samuel Sigl, trumpet; Paolo Grazzi, Amy Power, oboe; Alberto Grazzi, bassoon; Cecilia Bernardini, Claudia Combs, Brigitte Duftschmid, Isabella Bison, Rossella Croce, Ulrike Fischer, Mónika Tóth, Nina Pohn, violin; Teresa Ceccato, Barbara Palma, viola; Marcus van den Munckhof, Sara Bennici, cello; Paolo Zuccheri, double bass; Michele Pasotti, theorbo; Anna Fontana, harpsichord; Charlie Fischer, timpani

Johann Joseph Fux often turns up in books on music history, because he has written a treatise which for a long time has been used as educational material for would-be composers. Gradus ad Parnassum was also held in high esteem by Johann Sebastian Bach, especially because of the extensive treatment of counterpoint. The fact that Fux was also an important and highly respected composer himself is far less taken account of, and only fairly recently his oeuvre is performed and recorded.

Fux was born in Hirtenfeld in Styria, near Graz, and was a student at the Imperial Ferdinandeum at the Jesuit University of Graz. From 1683 to 1689 he studied in Ingolstadt. He worked as organist at the Schottenkloster in Vienna in the mid-1690s, and in 1698 he was appointed court composer by emperor Leopold I; he held this position under his successor Joseph I. In 1715 he became Oberkapellmeister of the imperial court; in this capacity he directed the largest court orchestra in Europe, which comprised sometimes more than 100 musicians.

Fux was a prolific composer; the work-list in New Grove is very long, and includes music in all genres: liturgical pieces, oratorios, operas, instrumental music and keyboard works. The only genre that is not represented is the chamber cantata. The disc under review focuses on the genre of the opera, although La corona d'Arianna could also be considered a serenata. Fux himself called it a festa teatrale per musica. It was performed in August 1726 in Vienna at the occasion of the 35th birthday of empress Elisabeth Christine, mother of Maria Theresia. A newspaper wrote: "In the evening, the very beautiful Italian opera, or theatrical festival, The Crown of Ariadne, composed by Her Imperial Majesty's Kapellmeister Herr Johann Joseph Fux for her glorious birthday, was performed in a theatre especially erected for the occasion in the Imperial Favorita Gardens. The work met with the most gracious approval of their Imperial Majesties and was highly praised by all the court and nobility." In September two further performances took place.

The premiere was during the holiday season, which the imperial family spent at the summer residence at the Favoritagasse. "Behind high walls, the imperial couple spent the summer in an artificial Greece: a huge lake with an island in the middle, gardens, a theatre, idyllic spots as far as the eye could see, and hunting grounds well stocked with game nearby." (booklet) The performance reflected the character of the occasion: the scoring included a large ensemble which included four trumpets and timpani and a chorus which takes an important role in this work. The musical forces were complemented by the stage design of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena: "The set shows the island of Naxos and depicts an elegantly decorated square with triumphal arches to celebrate the arrival of Bacchus." The imperial choreographers created elaborate ballets, the music for which was written by Nicola Matteis.

The booklet summarises the plot as follows. "The Cretan princess Ariadne has been disgracefully abandoned by her lover Theseus on the rocky island of Naxos. Inconsolable as she is, it is some time before she is able to acknowledge the advances of the god Bacchus. At last the two are united and Venus, the goddess of love, can crown Ariadne: The Crown of Ariadne. Another famous pair of lovers also finds happiness on Naxos: Thetis and Peleus, the later parents of Achilles. Of course, it is not love at first sight. The two grapple with many a misunderstanding before they come together. Eventually Venus, the goddess of love, is successful here too." The opera included seven different characters, originally sung by two female sopranos and one female contralto, two alto castratos, a tenor and a bass-baritone. The header of this review reveals that five of them have been left in this performance; the roles of tenor (Asterius) and bass (Simardo) have been omitted.

The present recording follows a series of performances during the Styriarte Festival in Graz in 2022. It was the fifth performance of a series of six operas by Fux, from a total of 19 that are extant. The first in the series was performed in 2018 and the last is planned for 2023. Unfortunately only one performance has made it to disc: Dafne in Lauro (2019). The performances in 2020, 2021 and 2022 were the victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alfredo Bernardini, in his notes in the booklet, states: "[Rather] than abandon the idea [of performing Fux's operas], the Styriarte Festival made every effort to keep the Fux mission alive both by enhancing the use of digital means of transmitting music and by coming up with original strategies to allow live performances to take place, even though distancing regulations drastically limited audience size. One solution was to perform considerably shortened versions of the works twice a day. Therefore, together with Karl Böhmer [the dramaturgist], we discussed at length how to shorten the operas, sometimes cutting roles, eliminating some recitatives and arias and also reducing the number of da capos, but in any case trying to maintain the sense of the story, the dramatic tension and a logical and fluid musical execution." The result is this recording of a little less than 70 minutes. It is a shame that this interesting project has been handicapped by circumstances beyond anyone's control. However, one can only be grateful that an attempt has been made to give at least some idea of what this piece is about and this way of the qualities of a composer, who is still seriously underrated.

One effect of the cuts is that the original balance between the protagonists has changed. The primadonna of the first performance was Marianna Lorenzani Conti, a real celebrity who had sung major roles in many operas in Italy. Fux had assigned the role of Venus to her, who is the dominant character in the libretto, and given her the most and the most brilliant arias. The dominance of Venus has disappeared, as within this abridged version all the characters had to take a reasonable part. That was made easier by cutting two of the characters completely.

As I wrote, we have to be grateful that this version is available on disc; it is better than nothing at all. That is also due to the performance. Alfredo Bernardini, one of our time's finest players of the baroque oboe, has in recent years become active as a director of performances, both of instrumental and vocal music. In the latter department, he has shown to have a good ear for singers. That is the case here as well. The five soloists display a good sense of style and the performance as a whole is stylistically coherent. There is no incessant wide vibrato in any of the solo parts, and the ornamentation is not extravagant. The only issue may be that in the cadenzas the soloists now and then cross the tessitura of their part, which is not desirable. I only knew Monica Piccinini, who here sings better than I have heard her elsewhere, and Marianne Beate Kielland, one of the finest contraltos of our time. The other three I heard here for the first time, and it was a pleasant acquaintance. Zefiro, originally an ensemble of baroque winds, more and more performs as a full-blooded baroque orchestra, and as such it is of the same quality as we have learnt to know it in its original line-up. It delivers a sparkling performance of the orchestral score.

In short, despite the cuts, this is a recommendable performance of one of Fux's works for the stage, and it is to be hoped that this - and the entire project of Bernardini and the Styriarte Festival - may contribute to the re-evaluation of Johann Joseph Fux as a composer in his own right.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Carlotta Colombo
Marianne Beate Kielland
Monica Piccinini
Rafał Tomkiewicz
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Zefiro Baroque Orchestra

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