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Agostino STEFFANI (1654 - 1728): "Mission"

Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Philippe Jaroussky, altoa
Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzerab; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: Nov 2011 - March 2012, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo
Decca - 478 4732 (© 2012) (80'28")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Alarico il Baltha, cioè L'audace re de' Gothi (Sciere invitte, non tardare; Sì, sì, riposa, o caro - Palpitanti sfere belle, rec & aria); Arminio (Suoni, tuoni, il suolo scuota); Henrico Leone (Morirò fra strazi e scempi); I trionfi del fato (Combatton quest'alma, duetb; Mie fide schiere, all'armi! - All'armi, rec & chorusc); La libertà contenta (Deh stancati, o sorte; Notte amica al cieco Dio; Svenati, struggiti, combatti, suda); La lotta d'Hercole con Acheloo (La cerasta più terribile); La superbia d'Alessandro (Foschi crepuscoli; Non prendo consiglio; Tra le guerre e le vittoriec); Le rivali concordi (Timori, ruinebc); Marco Aurelio (Non si parli che di fedec); Niobe, regina di Tebe (Amami, e vederai; Dell'alma stanca - Sfere amiche, rec & aria; Ove son - Dal mio petto, rec & aria; Serena, o mio bel sole - Mia fiamma/Mio ardore, rec & duetb; T'abbraccio, mia Diva/Ti stringo, mio Nume, duetb); Servio Tullio (Ogni core può sperar); Tassilone (A facile vittoria; Dal tuo labbro amor m'invita; Padre, s'è colpa in lui; Più non v'ascondo; Sposa, mancar mi sento - Deh non far colle tue lagrime, rec & aria)

The frontespiece of this disc raises some questions. What exactly is this disc about? The word "Mission" doesn't give a clue, and there are no names of composers. It is the reverse which reveals the content of this disc: arias from operas by Agostino Steffani. But then why is this disc called "Mission"? What does that have to with music, let alone with opera?

In the first place it is related to Agostino Steffani. He was not only active as a composer, but also as a diplomat. That is what the word "mission" refers to. However, Steffani's diplomatic missions and his musical activities are not strictly divided. He sometimes used his operas to further his diplomatic missions, for instance by propitiating rulers so that they would endorse his proposals. He also used operas to express his ideas on some matters. The mingling of his musical and diplomatic duties justifies the extended information about Steffani's life and career in the booklet.

One almost gets tired by just reading about him crossing Europe, covering approximately 11,000 kilometres during the course of his life. If one realises how slow and complicated travelling in those days was, one wonders how he found the time to compose. Another notable feature of his life is that he was generally able to avoid creating any personal animosity against him, which is quite surprising for someone so heavily involved in politics. It shows that he was highly gifted in this department as well. He also seems to have had the talent to be at the right place at the right time, but also to be absent when that was more convenient.

Let us turn to his biography. Steffani was educated as a singer and performed at an early age as a treble. He went to Munich at the age of 13, where he received keyboard lessons from Johann Caspar Kerll. He then went to Rome and studied composition with Ercole Bernabei. It is possible that there he already started to compose chamber duets, a genre which would make him especially famous. When Bernabei was appointed Kapellmeister in Munich, Steffani returned with him. Under the Elector Maximilian II Emanuel his career came off quickly. He composed his first opera which shows the influence of Lully; it was followed by other operas, some on librettos by his brother. In Munich he started his activities in the diplomatic sphere.

In 1688 he entered the service of Duke Ernst August of Hanover. Here he spent the next 15 years, first mainly as a composer, then especially as a diplomat. The Duke built a splendid opera house and founded an opera company. Hanover developed into a internationally renowned centre of opera. The orchestra included musicians from France and Italy. In 1703 he entered the service of the Elector Palatine, Johann Wilhelm, in Düsseldorf. At that time he had almost given up composing and concentrated on political activities.

In 1780 he had been ordained a priest, and since then made a career in the church as well. In 1709 he was appointed Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany, with the duty of bringing the protestant parts of Germany back to the Church of Rome. He chose Hanover as his seat where he remained until his death. In the 1720s he turned his interest to music again. He composed various works, among them a Stabat mater which he considered his best composition.

This disc sheds light on an important part of his oeuvre: his operas. Very few of them have been performed and recorded in modern times. The best-known work in this department is Henrico Leone. It is telling that all but four of the pieces on this disc are recorded here for the very first time.

Projects like this can make sense as they show the qualities of the music of a specific composer. Problem here is that some arias are quite short which makes the isolation from their context especially unsatisfying. However, this disc succeeds in displaying the qualities of Steffani as a composer of music for the theatre. The programme includes some real gems, such as 'Notte amica' from La libertà contenta and 'Dell'alma stanca - Sfere amiche', a recitative and aria from Niobe, regina di Tebe. The instrumental scoring is also attractive, although it is not always clear whether the instruments used here were prescribed by the composer. In several arias I hear percussion instruments, and as some interpreters love to add percussion where it is not needed, I can't help being rather suspicious.

One can only admire Cecilia Bartoli who has invested much time and energy in this project. That is another explanation of the title of this disc: Ms Bartoli sees it as her mission to convince music lovers that Steffani's music is of such a quality that his oeuvre should be thoroughly explored. If she succeeds and paves the way for his operas being performed and recorded, we have to thank her. I am less thankful for her performances. Her incessant and wide vibrato is highly annoying. Not only is it stylistically indefensible, it also badly affects the delivery. Even in the more introverted arias, where she tries to keep her vibrato in check, it is hard to understand the text. That is also due to a less than perfect diction as Ms Bartoli tends to swallow the vowels. There is little differentiation between notes; in the coloraturas every note sounds the same.

The programme includes some duets, in which Ms Bartoli is joined by Philippe Jaroussky. Their voices don't blend well, and it is rather odd that in the duet 'T'abbraccio, mia Diva - Ti stringo, mio Nume' from Niobe, regina di Tebe, the voice of the female character (Bartoli) is darker and stronger than that of her male counterpart (Jaroussky). In the aria 'A facile vittoria' from Tassilone Ms Bartoli's voice doesn't blend well with the obbligato trumpet either.

Some arias are preceded by a recitative. Here Ms Bartoli doesn't take enough metrical freedom. Very odd is the mixture of a chorus from I trionfi del fato with the aria 'Suoni, tuoni' from Arminio. The role of the choir is not really satisfying which is largely due to its size. Historically it is highly questionable whether a choir of 22 singers is appropriate. The size of the orchestra also raises questions. The booklet includes a long list of players involved in this recording. I suspect that not all of them did participate in every part of the recording, as it was made over a period of five months. However, although the orchestra doesn't sound as if it is very large, it is probably larger than was common in Steffani's time.

The booklet includes much information about Steffani and his career. Unfortunately there is no information about the music performed here. It would have been helpful if there had been some information about the content of the various operas and the arias had been put in their context.

This project gets an A for effort. If you want to extend your acquaintance with Steffani's oeuvre it is well worth investigating. If you can't stand a recording in which almost everything we know about the style of singing in the baroque era is ignored, avoid it.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Cecilia Bartoli

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