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Giovanni Maria CASINI (1652 - 1719): Il Viaggio di Tobia

Laura Antonaz (Angelo), Claudine Ansermet (Tobia Figlio), soprano; Mia Fracassini (Anna), mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Ovenden (Azarža/Raguele), tenor; Sergio Foresti (Tobia Padre), bass
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzeria; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: Jan 2004, Lugano, Auditorium RSI
Dynamic - CDS 7705/1-2 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.52'43")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

In the mid-17th century Giacomo Carissimi earned great admiration for his oratorios. This was to become one of the major genres of vocal music in Italy in the next one hundred years or so. Such works were often performed during Lent when opera performances were forbidden. It allowed the vocal parts to be performed by the opera stars of the time. It also explains why many oratorios end with a reference to the Passion of Christ as Lent ends with Holy Week.

The present oratorio is different: there is no reference to the Passion but it has rather a moral drift. This can probably be explained by the fact that it was originally written in 1695 "to be sung in the church of the congregation of the oratory of S. Filippo Neri in Florence". This refers to the Congregazione dell'Oratorio, an order that had been founded in 1575 by Filippo Neri and was one of the main supporters of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. One of the objectives of Neri's congregation was to make the message of the gospel understandable for uneducated people, meaning anyone who did not understand Latin, the language of the Church. This explains why this oratorio - unlike those of Carissimi - is in Italian and has a structure which is not unlike that of an opera. A dramatic account of a story was helpful to communcate the message to the audience.

A good story was also welcome. The author of the libretto - probably Casina himself - took the subject of his oratorio from the Book of Tobit, one of the apocrypha of the Bible. A description of its content is given by Wikipedia. Probably the best-known musical setting of this story is Haydn's oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia, although that work is by far not as well-known as his oratorios Die SchŲpfung and Die Jahreszeiten. Haydn used a different libretto and as the title indicates only deals with a part of the story: the return of Tobit - Tobia Figlio, as he is called in the present libretto - to his father (Tobia Padre). The whole second part is devoted to the process of curing the father's eyes. That element in the story takes only a very small part in Casini's work. It is divided into two parts: in the first the father sends his son - against the wishes of his wife, Anna - to collect the money he had lent out to a certain Gabello. The young Tobit is accompanied by someone who calls himself Azarža, but is in fact the archangel Raphael, a fact which is only revealed at the end of the oratorio. He also marries a woman whom he is able to liberate from evil spirits hauting her. He does so with the help of the heart, liver and gall bladder he has taken from a fish. These are also the medicines with which Tobit cures his father's blindness.

The oratorio opens with a very short instrumental introduction - lasting only 25 seconds here - and continues with a sequence of recitatives and arias. In addition there are some duets - and in the second part a trio - and some choruses. Many recitatives end in an arioso manner which was quite common at the time Casini composed his oratorio. Most of the arias are relatively short; some longer arias have a da capo. In track 18 of the first disc we find a kind of scene with elements of aria and recitative. It describes the moment Tobit is attacked by a fish and at the instigation of the angel catches it in order to remove its internal organs. Another dramatic moment is track 24 of the second disc: Anna expresses her fears about the fate of her son in what looks to become an aria, but then suddenly turns into a recitative when she sees her son coming. Most arias are technically not very demanding, but some include quite some coloratura. That goes especially for a couple of arias of the angel, such as 'O del Gran Monarca' (CD 1, track 23) and 'Stolt'Ť l'uom' (CD 1, track 29). A particularly interesting part of this work is the contrast between Tobias who expresses his hope of a good outcome and Anna who is driven by fear. That comes especially to the fore in the duet 'M'induce il timore' (CD 2, track 20): "Fear leads me - Hope leads me".

At several moments the story of the journey of Tobit and the angel is interrupted by descriptions of the way his parents deal with his long absence. There is no unity of time and space and this attests to the fact that oratorios like this were not performed in the way of an opera, but rather in concertante form. Despite the dramatic character of the story this oratorio is not very theatrical in an operatic sense of the word. It is all about the message. What is the moral of the story? Part of it certainly is the importance of love for one's parents as is shown by Tobit. Another part of the moral is the virtue of gratitude. When Tobit liberates his future wife from evil spirits the latter's father shows his gratitude with generous gifts. At the end of the work Tobit is willing to give half of it to the angel, by way of thanks for his protection. The differences between the fear of Anna and the hope of Tobias cannot be overlooked either. The outcome of the story proves that the latter was right and that fear is in the end a lack of faith. This was all very much in line with the ideals of Neri's congregation.

We haven't yet talked about the composer. We should because he is a largely unknown quantity. It seems that only some organ works from his pen have been recorded. He was born in Florence and one of his first teachers was Francesco Nigetti, organist of Florence Cathedral. It is likely that he also studied for some time with Bernardo Pasquini in Rome, who was considered the greatest organist of his time and a worthy successor of Frescobaldi. Casini earned that same reputation. In his sacred music he shows a strong preference for polyphony, and that comes to the fore in this oratorio as well. There is quite some similarity between the oratorios of Casini - he composed various ones, some of which have been lost - and the earlier oratorios by Alessandro Scarlatti. They were good friends and in 1708 Casini conducted a performance of an oratorio by Scarlatti.

Casini is far less known than his friend, but this oratorio shows that his oeuvre deserves attention. This recording of 2004 has finally made it to disc; better late than never. We should be grateful for that because it is a nice work with lots of fine arias. The performance is pretty good. Claudine Ansermet uses a little too much vibrato, but it is not really disturbing. The part of the angel is not only the most demanding, it is also of great beauty. That is also due to Laura Antonaz who sings it brilliantly. The contrast between Tobias and Anna is worked out very well. Mya Fracassini gives a good account of her part which includes some of the most expressive arias of this work. She and Sergio Foresti are a good match in the duet 'Lagrime a mille a mille' (CD 2, track 14), another highlight of this oratorio. The choruses are sung by the choir of Swiss Italian-language radio. It is a good ensemble but in oratorios the choruses were unsually sung by the soloists together. That would have been a better option here as well. I Barocchisti does well in the realisation of the instrumental score, largely consisting of just two violins and bc. In some choruses they are joined by a pair of trumpets.

This music is good enough to be enjoyed without reading the lyrics. However, a recording of vocal music can hardly do without it. The booklet omits them and it is rather odd that nowhere is it mentioned that the lyrics with an English translation can be downloaded from the Dynamic site. I have added the link in the header.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Claudine Ansermet
Laura Antonaz
Mya Fracassini
Jeremy Ovenden

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