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"St Petersburg"

Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano
Silvana Bazzoni, sopranoa; Coro della RSIa; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: Dec 2013, Feb & April 2014, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo
Decca - 478 6767 (© 2014) (77'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Francesco Domenico ARAIA (1709-c1770): La forza dell'amore e del'odio (Vado a morir); Seleuco (Pastor che a notte ombrosa); Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801): La vergine del sole (Agitata in tante pene); Vincenzo MANFREDINI (1737-1799): Carlo Magno (A noi vivi, donna eccelsaa; Fra' lacci tu mi credi; Non turbar que' vaghi rai; ); Domenico DALL'OGLIO (c1700-1764)/Luigi MADONIS (1690-1767): Prologue to La clemenza di Tito by Johann Adolf Hasse ( ) (De' miei figli); Hermann RAUPACH (1728-1778): Altsesta (Isu na smert; March); Gerkules (Razverzi pyos gortani, laya); Siroe, re di Persia (O placido il mare)

Today the musical landscape in the realm of 'early music' is very differentiated. Music from Germany, Italy, France and England still dominates the programmes of concerts and commercial recordings, but there is an increasing interest in music from other regions in Europe, such as Poland, (former) Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Not long ago Jordi Savall explored the musical heritage of the Balkan region. The repertoire even crosses the borders of the continent as the often surprisingly rich archives in Latin America are explored. One region on the European continent has remained a kind of terra incognita, at least for the mainstream interpreters of early music. I am talking here about Russia: music from this country which is performed today in concert halls and is recorded on disc dates from the 19th and 20th centuries. A special case is the liturgical music which is the almost exclusive domain of Russian choirs.

We are well acquainted with the main genres of the 17th and 18th centuries: motet, cantata, oratorio, opera, sonata, suite, solo concerto and symphony. Where are the Russian contributions to these genres? The answer is simple: they don't exist. Until the late 17th century Russia was very much isolated, and there were very few contacts with the western and central parts of Europe. It was tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) who opened the windows to the west and was especially impressed by the French monarchy under Louis XIV. However, it were his successors who imported music and musicians from outside the country. The Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has investigated forgotten repertoire in the past, and this time she has devoted time and energy to discover how especially Italian opera made its way into the Russian empire.

Three tsaritsas figure prominently in the story of Italian music, and particularly Italian opera, in Russia. The first was Anna Ioannovna who ruled from 1730 to 1740. Under her rule the first Italian opera company settled in St Petersburg, with the Italian violinist and composer Domenico dall'Oglio at its helm. Anna also expanded the court chapel and founded Russia's first academy of music. In 1734 Francesco Araia of Naples became the first Russian court composer. In 1736 he performed his opera La forza dell'amore e dell'odio in the theatre of the Winter Palace. It was also the first time a libretto was printed in Russian; the opera was sung in Italian, though.

Anna was succeeded by Elizabeth (1741-1761); at the occasion of her coronation in 1742 La clemenza di Tito by Hasse was performed, preceded by a prologue, written for the occasion by Dall'Oglio and his fellow composer Luigi Madonis. Elizabeth continued the opening towards the west and especially the embracement of musical developments over there. In 1755 Araia's opera Alessandro nell'Indie was premiered, and one of the stars was the castrato Carestini. That same year the first opera in Italian style, but with a libretto in Russian, was performed: Tsefal i Prokris by Araia. Both Araia and Dall'Oglio are represented in the programme of the present disc. Another important name is Hermann Raupach. He was born in Stralsund in Germany and joined the court orchestra as a harpsichordist in 1755; four years later he succeeded Araia as court composer. In 1758 his opera Altsesta was performed in the summer residence, again on a Russian libretto. Only a small part of his oeuvre has been preserved.

The two remaining names in the programme are Vincenzo Manfredini and Domenico Cimarosa which bring us to the style of the classical era. In 1757 an Italian opera company performed Italian musical comedies. These became so popular that they gradually overshadowed the genre of the opera seria. One of the members of the company was Vincenzo Manfredini who was appointed court composer in 1761, after Elizabeth's death, by her successor Peter. However, Peter died only six months later and was succeeded by his wife Catherine the Great. In 1763 she decided that only those composers were good enough for her court who were famous across Europe. Manfredini was dismissed and was replaced by Baldassare Galuppi, the famous master from Venice. He stayed in Russia until 1768.

In 1787 Domenico Cimarosa became maestro di cappella in St Petersburg, but he only stayed four years. There seem various reasons for that. Cimarosa couldn't bear the Russian winters, but his operas were overshadowed by those of Vicente Martín y Soler who had been appointed second maestro di cappella shortly after Cimarosa. Moreover, Catherine had to face an economic crisis and was forced to dissmiss most of the Italian singers. In his liner-notes Marcus Wyler mentions another factor. Catherine was hardly interested in music and turned her attention to French spoken theatre. In the next decades the court increasingly became under the spell of French culture and as a result Italian opera lost its appeal to the Russian nobility.

One has to appreciate Cecilia Bartoli's efforts to bring unknown repertoire to light. It seems that there are many operas to be discovered. It would be especially interesting to hear a complete 18th-century opera on a Russian libretto. It is probably something that Russian interpreters have to take care of, but the economic and political/cultural situation right now may not be the most ideal to realize such a large-scale project. The extensive booklet includes fascinating stuff for historians and music lovers alike. The programme includes arias by composers who are hardly known, let alone represented on disc.

All these positive factors make it all the more regrettable that the performances suffer from the same factors which always damage Ms Bartoli's interpretations: her incessant and wide vibrato and her poor diction. These are partly responsible for the fact that the text is hardly understandable. Some items are in Russian, but you have to listen very carefully to hear the difference with the Italian arias. I Barocchisti play well, although Diego Fasolis sometimes focuses too much on effect. Some arias have nice obbligato parts, for instance for clarinet and violin in Agitata in tante pene from Cimarosa's La vergine del sole. Also nice are the parts of transverse flute and archlute in De' miei figli from the prologue to Hasse's La clemenza di Tito. The arias are generally very good; I especially liked Non turbar que' vaghi rai from Carlo Magno by Vincenzo Manfredini.

Considering the historical importance of this project and the quality of the music opera lovers should investigate this disc. They have to accept the idiosyncracies of Cecilia Bartoli's singing. Those who don't want to better stay away from it.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Cecilia Bartoli
I Barocchisti


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