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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): Sedecia, Re di Gerusalemme

Alessandra Capici (Anna), Rosita Frisani (Ismaele), soprano; Amor Lilia Perez (Sedecia), contralto; Mario Cecchetti (Nadabbe), tenor; Marco Vinco (Nabucco), bass
Ars Cantica Choir (Marco Berrini), Alessandro Stradella Consort
Dir: Estévan Velardi

rec: Oct 1999, Genoa, Oratorio di S. Erasmo a Sori
Brilliant Classics - 95537 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2018) (2.10'05")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

The genre of the oratorio has its origin in the Congregazione dell'Oratorio, which was founded in the 16th century by Filippo Neri. Originally oratorios were set to Latin texts, for instance by Giacomo Carissimi, who was the most prolific composer of oratorios in the mid-17th century. Those in the vernacular were meant to bring the moral content closer to 'common' people who did not understand Latin. The church considered this genre an important vehicle to spread the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

In the course of time, oratorios started to look more and more like operas. The oratorio which is the subject of the present disc is a good example. It is about Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the destruction of the kingdom by Babylon. Zedekiah had been installed as king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, after a siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC. He revolted against Nebuchadnezar, who reacted by besieging Jerusalem, the kingdom's capital. If one reads the libretto, which was written by the poet Filippo Ortensio Fabbri, one notices hardly any references to God. In a recitative in the second part, Zedekiah mentions that the fate of his country is the effect of "idol worshippers, that on many altars burned to false gods on our behalf". There are some references to 'Heaven', but that is not exclusively Christian. Oratorios usually ended with a moral. If there is any here, it is in Zedekiah's last recitative, when he has been blinded by Nebuchadnezar: "But since my repentance is late, at least let my example be a lesson to others: The great God of war expiates the wrongs of the common folk and the Royal offences with different punishments". The oratorio does not end with a reference to faith or even the victory of virtue: Nebuchadnezar has the last say, and his recitative is followed by a 'Chorus of triumphant soldiers'. What we have here is basically an opera on a biblical subject.

That is confirmed by the circumstances, under which it was performed, as Roberto Pagano explains in his liner-notes. The oratorio was first performed in 1705 in Urbino, and the next year in Rome. It was dedicated to Cardinal Ottoboni, one of the main patrons of the arts of his time. The ecclesiastical authorities, and the Pope personally, were very critical of opera and regularly issued edicts in order to prevent performances of operas and other works of a comparable nature. Those who wanted to listen to or perform such works, had to find a loophole, by presenting dramatic works under a different title, such as serenata or oratorio.

Towards the end of the 17th century a kind of standard had been developed as far as the texture of the oratorio is concerned. The vocal scoring was mostly for five solo voices; the soloists also sang the choruses. The instrumental scoring mostly consisted of two violins, viola and basso continuo, sometimes with one or two additional instruments, which were given an obbligato part in arias. Sedecia, Re di Gerusalemme links up with this tradition in several respects. There are five characters, scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass. Like all oratorios of around 1700, it comprises two parts, and consists of a sequence of recitatives and arias. There are a couple of duets, and one chorus at the end. However, there are also some major differences, and that especially concerns the instrumental scoring. In addition to the two violins, the viola and the basso continuo, it includes two oboes, two trumpets, timpani and lute. The line-up of the basso continuo section is usually left to the discretion of the performers, but it seems that Scarlatti here specifically refers to the harpsichord, as - according to Pagano - he indicates that in some arias the harpsichord has to keep silent. Whether this indicates any keyboard instrument is an interesting question, which I can't answer. In any case, sometimes the organ is used, where the harpsichord should be omitted, and one wonders whether this is in line with the composer's intentions.

The booklet includes a short summary of what is described in the Old Testament, to be precise, in the books II Kings (ch 25), Jeremiah (ch 39) and Ezekiel (ch 12). As one may expect, the libretto is in various ways different from the biblical account. Three of the characters in the oratorio are not mentioned in the Bible, and are the product of the librettist's phantasy: Zedekiah's wife (Anna), his young son (Ismaele), and his general (Nadabbe). Nebuchadnezar (Nabucco) also turns up, but although his army besieges Jerusalem, it is questionable whether he was there in person.

Although Zedekiah is the title character, in the oratorio his role is rather limited. In fact, his wife and in particular his son play a remarkable role. The latter is called a 'young boy'; we probably have to think of him as someone in his early teens. In the first part, he is willing to fight: "Now that your troops are ready, Father, ah, allow me, the courage and the hope, that, although a young boy, I too can arm myself against the enemy (...)." His mother is ready to sacrifice herself for her husband. The first part closes with her aria 'Fermati, o barbaro': "Stop, oh, barbarian, stand still. And if you want to immerge your sword in a royal breast, plunge it into mine". In the second part Ismael is ready for the same, and here he sings an aria which is identical in text and music with his mother's aria. This is a brilliant stroke by Scarlatti. Ismael is indeed killed, and does so while singing the longest and one of the most moving arias of this oratorio. "Warm blood, which is wetting my breast, and gives a great proof of love for a Father. Run please, run from me, as I'm already dying, I remain bloodless". And then follows a B section as well as a repeat of the A section. One can understand Pagano's comment: "[Despite] the high quality of the music, here more than elsewhere we regret the dramatic absurdity of the 'da capo' (...)".

It is also notable how effective Scarlatti makes use of the various instruments. Not only does he give the trumpets and the oboe obbligato parts to play, sometimes the accompaniment is confined to the cellos and the basso continuo. I already mentioned that sometimes the harpsichord (keyboard?) has to keep silent. Moreover, there are also arias with obbligato parts for one or two violins.

As one would expect, Scarlatti eloquently expresses the content of arias in his music. In his aria 'Né so perché', Ismael is supported by long, quiet strokes of the strings: "I'm afraid, I know not why, of the perilous event". The string playing is getting more agitated on the phrase "But nevertheless I know that the sorrowful shadow does not let live me happily". In 'Il nitrito de' fieri cavalli' Ismael sings about "[the] neighing of the spirited horses, which surround the kingdom's valleys", and this is effectively illustrated by the aria's rhythm. Anna's aria which closes the first part, mentioned above, ends with the words "stand still", and on these words the voice and the instruments suddenly break off. The death aria of Ismael includes a strong contrast between the A and the B part. The former is dominated by descending figures, but in the latter, the opening phrase - "Perhaps one day you'll rise again to revenge the hand that struck me" - is illustrated by rising figures. Fast moving figures depict the A part of Nadabbe's aria 'Come turbine rapace': "Like a rapacious whirlwind, when the sea lies very quietly, whips the waves into a great tempest".

This recording dates from 1999 and was first released on the Italian label BonGiovanni, which probably does not exist anymore. The performance is not bad, but far from ideal. It is true that Zedekiah is not a very strong character, but I would have preferred a somewhat stronger voice than that of Amor Lilia Perez. There is no lack of expression in Alessandra Capici's account of the role of Anna, but she uses too much vibrato to really convince. The other singers are not free of that either, but in their case it is less disturbing. Marco Vinco and Mario Cecchetti do pretty well in their respective roles. Rosina Frisani makes the best impression here. She has a beautiful voice, and successfully tries to sound like a young boy. Her arias are the highlights of this performance. The ensemble plays pretty well, even though it is not entirely up to today's standard.

In 2001 Virgin Classics released a recording by Il Seminario Musicale, directed by Gérard Lesne, which was claimed to be the first. However, Velardi recorded it one month earlier, so the honour of being the first to record this oratorio is his. It doesn't matter, of course; one can only applaud the idea of bringing this fine work to the attention of the music world. Lesne's interpretation is considerably better: both the playing and the singing are of a higher standard and his performance is clearly preferable to Velardi's. Even so, the reissue of his performance by Brilliant Classics is welcome, as it allows the music lover to become acquainted with this piece at budget price. It is a shame that this edition omits the lyrics. At the Naxos site, the booklet of the BonGiovanni edition are available for download.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Ars Cantica Choir
Alessandro Stradella Consort

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