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Alessandro STRADELLA (1639 - 1682): Ester, liberatrice del popolo Hebreo

Elisa Franzetti (Speranza Celeste), Silvia Piccollo (Ester), soprano; Vicky Norrington (Mardocheo), contralto; Matteo Armanino (Assuero), baritone; Francesco Lambertini (Testo), Riccardo Ristori (Aman), bass
Il Concento
Dir: Luca Franco Ferrari

rec: Nov 22 - 26, 2001, Torbi di Ceranesi (Genua), Chiesa di San Lorenzo
Brilliant Classics - 94297 (© 2012) (67'51")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Rosanna de Rosa, Chiara Longobardi, Debora Parodi (Un'ebrea), Patrizia Bozzo, Anna Lunardi, Francesco Rota (Testo), soprano; Marina Mucci, Linda Zunino, Cristina Parodi, contralto; Carlo Bavastro, Filippo Biolé, Marco Canepa, Marcello Modena, tenor; Sergio Grazia, Stefano Passalacqua, Matteo Soro, bass
Luca Franco Ferrari, viola da gamba; Chiara Alberti, cello; Federico Bagnasco, violone; Olivier Lestorey, trombone; Marta Graziolino, harp; Massimo Biancamano, theorbo, guitar; Piermario Grosso, harpsichord; Tiziano Canepa, organ

As so many composers in the baroque era Alessandro Stradella died relatively young, at the age of 42. However, he did not die of natural causes, such as an illness or an epidemic. On 25 February 1682 he was stabbed to death; the murderer has remained unknown, and so have the reasons for his being killed, but it is reasonable to assume that it was the result of his many affairs of an amorous nature. One of these was the reason he had to leave Rome for Venice in 1677. The time of the composition and performance of his oratorio Ester, liberatrice del popolo Hebreo is not known, but it is probably before 1677.

The oratorios constitute a relatively small part of Stradella's oeuvre. Only seven such works are known from his pen; one of these is lost, one has been preserved incomplete. Two oratorios have become especially famous: San Giovanni Battista and La Susanna. Ester is far lesser known, and I have never heard this work either on disc or in a live performance. It is remarkable that this recording dates from 2001 and has been released only 11 years later. The rear inlay or the booklet don't refer to a previous release on a different label.

The oratorio reflects an early stage in the history of the genre, and this explains that it is a bit different in some respects from the better-known works by the likes of Alessandro Scarlatti or Antonio Caldara. One of the parts is that of a narrator, called Testo. The oratorios by Giacomo Carissimi, generally considered the founder of the genre, almost always included such a role, but towards the end of the 17th century it gradually disappeared. His role in Ester is very small. Another feature of Ester is that the scoring is for voices and basso continuo. There are no parts for melody instruments as was common in later oratorios. The latter were usually scored for five voices - two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass - each of them taking one role; together they also sang the choruses. It is a little different here. There are five main characters; in addition there is a small role of Un'ebrea (A Jewish Woman) and the above-mentioned Testo. It seems likely that the latter two roles were taken by one of the soloists. In this recording the role of the Jewish Woman is sung by a member of the choir, whereas the role of the Testo is allocated to two different singers: in the second part to another member of the choir, in the first part to an additional singer. The scoring of the solo parts is different in that there is no tenor but a baritone instead. However, the tessitura of that role (Assuero) is such that it could probably be sung by a tenor with a good low register.

The story is well-known and based on the biblical book of Esther. It was used by various composers; the best-known oratorio on this subject is Handel's. Stradella's Ester is divided into two parts. In the first we hear about Haman's plans to kill the Jewish people and Mordecai urging Esther to approach King Ahasuerus and ask him to save her people. The Jewish people lament about their fate but are urged to have faith by an allegorical character, Speranza Celeste (Heavenly Hope). We hear Haman boasting of his power and Esther talking about her fear of approaching the King. It ends with a long dialogue between Heavenly Hope and Haman; the former has the last say. In the second part Esther reveals Haman's plans to the King who tells Haman that he has to die. Haman then laments about his fate, and in a kind of moral urges the audience: "Learn from me, o proud mortals". Heavenly Hope adds her own conclusions and the oratorio ends with the Jewish people declaring that "[the] impious will fall, will die, lacerated, slaughtered".

Stradella's Ester is a nice work and one has to welcome a recording of this oratorio. However, it deserves a new and hopefully better performance because this production leaves too much to be desired. The basso continuo comes off very well, and the director, Luca Franco Ferrari, effectively scores this part differently, according to the situation. However, the vocal part shows considerable weaknesses. Silvia Piccollo and Elisa Franzetti are excellent in the roles of Esther and Heavenly Hope respectively. Vicky Norrington sings the role of Mordecai rather well, but I find her approach a little too detached; she shows not enough involvement in the proceedings, and the tone of her voice is also rather cool. Matteo Armanino lacks the authority one expects in the role of Ahasuerus. He also seems not really comfortable with the tessitura of his part; the high notes don't come off that well. The main disappointment is Riccardo Ristori in the role of Haman. His realization of Haman's boasting is not really convincing and mostly too pathetic. But the main problem is stylistic: he is not very good in keeping tune as he constantly vibrates between various pitches.

The performance of the choruses with a choir of 16 singers is highly questionable. These were usually performed by the soloists. Here they lack in transparency and as a result the text is very hard to understand.

The libretto can be downloaded from the Brilliant Classics website. It comes with an English translation, but it isn't a very good one. The role of the Testo is translated as "text", would you believe it. Let us hope we will see a fully adequate recording of this fine work in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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