musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Alessandro STRADELLA: "La Circe, 1st and 2nd versions"

Anna Chierichettia, Cristina Fanellib, Leslie Viscoc, soprano; Francesco Toma, tenord; Giuseppe Naviglio, basse
Alessandro Stradella Consort
Dir: Estévan Velardi

rec: May 26, 2017 & March 11 - 17, 2019, Rome, Chiesa di S. Eligio
Dynamic - CDS7910.02 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.52'08")
Liner-notes: E/IT; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score La Circe II

Dormi, Titone, addio! (prologo fatto per La Dori)abd; La Circe à 3 (I) (Se desio curioso il cor v'ingombra)ace; La Circe à 3 (II) (Bei ruscelli cristallini)ace; Soffro, misero, e tacciob; Sonata di viole in D

Alessandro Stradella is better known for his turbulent lifestyle and his many love-affairs, which resulted in his violent death, than by his music. Although he was not even forty years old, when he was murdered, his oeuvre is sizeable, and includes a large number of operas and secular cantatas, and a much smaller number of sacred works. Little of his output has become part of the standard repertoire, except one of his oratorios, San Giovanni Battista.

In recent years it was in particular Andrea De Carlo, who, with his Ensemble Mare Nostrum, has focused on the vocal oeuvre of Stradella. He recorded most of the oratorios and some of his early operas. Since many years Stradella's music is one of the main subjects of interest of Estévan Velardi, who even called his ensemble after the composer. In the first decade of this century he recorded several of his secular works, and some of these recordings were reissued a few years ago. The production under review here comprises recordings from 2017 and 2019, and the core the programme are two pieces on the same subject.

"Circe (...) is an enchantress and a minor goddess in ancient Greek mythology and religion. She is either a daughter of the Titan Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse or the goddess Hecate and Aeëtes. Circe was renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs. Through the use of these and a magic wand or staff, she would transform her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals" (Wikipedia). Stories about Circe are included in Homer's Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphoses. The stories about Circe were also inspiring librettists and composers. Stradella was one of the first who wrote a cantata about her; Vivaldi composed a cantata, and there are operas about her by Pietro Andrea Ziani (1665), Henri Desmarets (1694) and Josef Myslivecek (1779). The poem Circé (1703) by Jean-Baptiste Rousseau strongly influenced composers of the 18th century.

The title of this disc refers to two versions. That was not uncommon at the time: most music was performed only at the time it was written, and if it was revived later, the composer usually made adaptations to different circumstances or different performing forces. George Frideric Handel is a good example: his oratorio Messiah exists in various different versions. However, Stradella's settings of La Circe is a different case. The second version is not a revision of the first, but an entirely different work. That is all the more remarkable as the author of the two librettos is one and the same person: Giovanni Filippo Apollonio, a man of the church and assistant to Cardinal Flavio Chigi in Rome from 1660. It is likely that it was Apollonio who introduced Stradella to the Cardinal. He had written several opera librettos, which were set by Antonio Cesti.

The first version of La Circe (Se desio curioso il cor v'ingombra) was first performed in May 1668; the score and the libretto have been preserved in manuscript, and the latter indicates the date and place of performance. As far as the second version is concerned: nothing is known about the time or reasons of composition, and it is not even known whether it was ever performed. Both have the character of a cantata, and both are scored for three singers: two sopranos and bass. The first represent the wind Zephirus and Circe (version I) or the Spirit of Circe (version II) respectively, whereas the latter embodies the river Algidus. The way the music is allocated to the various characters is very different. The first version includes six arias, divided among the three characters, two duets and a final trio. In the second version, six of the eight arias are for Circe; it has one duet and no fewer than eleven trios. The first version opens with a sinfonia; the sinfonia of the second version is missing, and this is substituted in this performance by a Sinfonia di viole. The two versions also end differently: the first with a trio, the second with a recitative by Circe. The first version was written in honour of Leopoldo de' Medici, who became Cardinal in December 1667, and arrived in Rome in March 1668; the official investiture took place in May.

The booklet includes a synopsis of the first version. "Circe comes to visit the grave of the son she had with Ulysses, Telegonus, founder of the city of Tusculum and an ally of Aeneas against Turnus in the conquest of Lazio (...). The set depicts hills like those of Frascati in Lazio (...). A dazzling light catches Circe’s eye while she is at her son's grave. Algidus tells her that it is a Medici figure of importance. After a conversation with an echo (...), Zephyrus announces the name of Leopoldo, to whom the three pay homage. Each of them gives him a personal gift: Algidus transforms his water into a crystal amphora, Zephyrus offers a bouquet of silk flowers, a shadow, on Circe's behalf, brings a small, ornated box containing perfume, fans and gloves." "The second Circe (Bei ruscelli cristallini), in C major, more complex and articulate, does not explicitly address the cardinal but praises, more generally, the 'Tuscan kings'. (...) Here the three characters end up offering perfumes (Circe), flowers (Zephyrus) and crystals (Algidus), but the finale, surprisingly, consists of an unexpected and unconventional recitative of Circe (Tempo verrà), which foresees a future when the performance will be remembered as memorable because of the presence of the 'splendid son of the pleasant Arno'."

The way the three characters are treated is different in each of the two versions, as is explained in the liner-notes. In the first version Circe takes an active role, whereas in the second she is more restraint, and the main roles are those of Zephirus and Algidus. Musically speaking, the first version is the most modern. The second work is reminiscent of an older, 'madrigalian' style; the two last trios - before the closing recitative - are even called madrigale, and are sung without instrumental accompaniment. The arias, duets and trios are not in dacapo form yet; however, the accompanying strings often end them with a return to the opening ritornello.

The two versions of La Circe are not dramatic in an operatic way; they have the character of serenatas which were different from opera. However, they are certainly theatrical in the way the dialogues between the protagonists are worked out, and their emotions are also successfully translated into music. That is all very well realised in these performances, both by the singers and the instrumental ensemble. Leslie Visco (Circe), Anna Chierichetti (Zephyrus) and Giuseppe Naviglio (Algidus) are in excellent form and are also stylistically convincing. These two pieces are very entertaining, and their recording is well deserved. They prove that Stradella was an outstanding composer for the voice - no wonder, as he was celebrated as a singer himself - and had a good sense for drama.

The two works that have been added are also fine pieces. Soffro, misero e taccio is a cantata for soprano. It is a kind of lamento which one may compare with those by Monteverdi and other composers of his time. It is still far away from the chamber cantata that was to be standardized by Alessandro Scarlatti. The piece has the form of a rondo: the opening phrase in minor mode - "I suffer, wretched me, and keep silent" - is repeated several times in the form of an arioso in long notes. Cristina Fanelli delivers a highly expressive performance of this work that deserves to be better known.

Giovanni Filippo Apollonio, who wrote the text of the two La Circe versions, also wrote the libretto for the opera La Dori ovvero la schiava fedele, performed 1671 in Rome. The opera had premiered in Innsbruck in 1657, and had been revived several times in different places since then, each time with a different prologue. For the performance in Rome, Apollonio had written another prologue, and this was set by Stradella. That is Dormi, Tirone, addio!, included here. It is scored for three voices: two sopranos and bass, and includes two arias, a duet and a trio as well as some recitatives. It is another testimony of the qualities of Stradella's music, and is given a fine performance by Cristina Fanelli, Anna Chierichetti and Francesco Toma.

Recently I reviewed a disc with recordings by this same ensemble from 2006, which were reissued. I was not overly enthusiastic about the singing of most of the soloists. That is very different here. I have very much enjoyed this recording, and I hope that we may see a continuation of the exploration of the oeuvre of Stradella, who has to be considered one of the great composers of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Anna Chierichetti
Leslie Visco

CD Reviews