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Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740 - 1816): La Passione di Gesù Cristo, oratorio in two parts

Roberta Invernizzi (Pietro), Alla Simoni (Maddalena), soprano; Luca Dordolo (Giovanni), tenor; José Fardilha (Giuseppe d'Arimatea), bass
Coro della Radio Svizzeria, Lugano; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: August 13 - 15, 2001, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI
CPO - 777 257-2(2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.36'03")

In the second half of the 18th century St Petersburg developed into one of Europe's most prominent centres of music. It was in particular tsarina Catherina II who was responsible for this, despite her self-proclaimed deafness for music. Under her regime a decree made it compulsory for the aristocracy to attend musical and theatrical entertainments. Court musicians were ordered to compose music for state occasions, birthdays and namedays. The court choir, originally only singing religious music, started to participate in theatrical productions, and came under increasing Western influence. This influence is also reflected in the performance of music by composers like Graun, Pergolesi and Jommelli. Some prominent composers from Europe visited St Petersburg and sometimes stayed there for a number of years. Between 1758 and 1806 the position of maestro di cappella was mostly held by Italian composers, among them Manfredini, Galuppi, Traetta, Cimarosa and Sarti. One of them was also Giovanni Paisiello, who stayed in St Petersburg from 1776 to 1784. It was also here that his oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo received its first performance, in 1783.

The libretto dates from 1730 and was written by the famous librettist Pietro Metastasio. The first composer to use it was Antonio Caldara, maestro di cappella at the imperial court in Vienna. Later on his libretto was used by Nicolò Jommelli in 1749; his setting had been performed some years before, in 1779, in St Petersburg as well. Paisiello asked Metastasio for an addition to the original libretto: between the last recitative for the four singers and the closing chorus he wanted to include a concertato for the four singers, but Metastasio bluntly refused and made clear he didn't like the idea at all.

In his libretto Metastasio completely avoids the biblical narration of the Passion story and the participation of Jesus. He rather concentrates on depicting Jesus' agony in a very theatrical fashion. The story of the Passion is told by three of the four characters in retrospective: Mary Magdalene, John and Joseph of Arimathea. They were all present at some of the events leading to the death and burial of Jesus. The fourth character is Peter, who wasn't present at either of them, as he fled from the courtroom while Jesus was interrogated. It is Peter whom we meet at the beginning of the first part, desperately asking himself: "Where am I? Where am I going? Who guides my steps? After my failing I can find no more peace". The first part is then devoted to the other three protagonists telling Peter what has happened since he left the scene. In the second part the four characters talk about the coming resurrection and they look forward to the way the Jewish people will suffer the revenge for Jesus' death: "What terrible vengeance awaits you, faithless Jerusalem!"

The operatic character of the libretto is also reflected by Paisiello's music, which isn't very different from the operas of the time. The orchestra plays an important role in depicting the mood of the respective characters. The oratio begins with an instrumental introduction which illustrates Peter's despair as expressed in the following recitative. This section contains a remarkable obbligato part for the clarinet. There are strong dissonances on the passage: "Why does the sun fade and become obscured in darkness?" The strings depict the trembling in Peter's aria which follows ("Since you tremble in my breast"). In Mary Magdalene's aria 'Vorrei dirti' short pauses illustrate her sighs: "And my stricken breast can scarcely gasp for breath". Paisiello isn't afraid of expressing joy in this oratorio as well, in particular in Peter's aria 'Tu nel duol', in which he says that John may consider himself fortunate, as Jesus has called him 'son'. The content of this aria is expressed by ascending figures. The second part also contains arias one wouldn't expect in a Passion oratorio. As Carlo Vitali puts it in his programme notes: "We should be tolerant when other arias, particularly in the second part of the oratorio, are packed with half-hearted flourishes or dance-elements likely to conjure up the world of the opera buffa e sentimentale". I can only agree with this, and I would personally expand this to the oratorio as a whole. If one listens to this work with the Gospels or with Bach's Passions at the back of one's mind, it may be difficult to swallow. In order to appreciate it one should try to put it into its historical perspective, and listen to it as an opera with a religious subject rather than as a piece of sacred music.

In the performance the operatic character comes out well. The soloists all give top-notch performances. Roberta Invernizzi is the most impressive as she captures the moods - and in particular the despair - of Peter brilliantly. Her role of Peter and the role of Mary Magdalene are the most dramatic in this oratorio, and the latter role is given a fine account by Alla Simoni. In comparison the tenor and bass are a bit more moderate. Luca Dordolo is sometimes a little bland, but he sings the aria 'Ritornerà il voi' well. I find the voice of José Fardilha not particularly pleasing, as it is a bit harsh, something the role of Joseph of Arimathea doesn't ask for. He does best in his aria 'All'idea de' tuoi perigli' in the second part.

Like I wrote before the orchestra has a very important role, and several arias contain obbligato parts, in particular for wind instruments. An example is Peter's aria 'Se a libarsi' in the second part, which begins as a movement from a clarinet concerto. The clarinet plays a solo which ends with a cadenza, and only then the soprano enters. I Barocchisti leave nothing to be desired. The playing is colourful and dynamic, and the individual players give fine performances of the obbligato parts. The wind section is especially impressive, consisting of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, bassoons and trumpets.

There are only three choruses: two in the first part (one in the middle and one at the end), whereas the third concludes the oratorio. Those in the first part are very dramatic, and Paisiello here not only uses dynamics and instrumental colours to express their content - remarkable is the role of the clarinet in 'Quanto costa' - but also harmony. In the chorus which closes the first part the word "trema" (tremble) gets a special treatment, repeated time and again successively through all four voices. In comparison the chorus which closes the oratorio is quite different, much more introverted, reflecting the faith, hope and love its text is about. The choir of Italian Swiss Radio gives very impressive performances of all three choruses.

One needs to get used to an oratorio like this. But if you are willing to open up to the particular character of this work and are able to see it in its historical context you are rewarded with fine music. It is perhaps especially the lovers of the 18th century opera who shall appreciate this work rather than those who have a specific interest in religious music. Diego Fasolis and his team of singers and players have delivered a performance which reveals this work's strengths in a most convincing way.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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