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Donato RICCHEZZA (c1650 - 1722): "Los santos niños" - Oratorio di San Giusto e San Pastore

Federica Pagliuca (San Pastore), soprano; Marta Fumagalli (San Giusto), contralto; Luca Cervoni (Soldato), tenor; Giuseppe Naviglio (Daciano), bass
Cappella Neapolitana
Dir: Antonio Florio

rec: March 2017, Naples, Palazzo Positano
Glossa - GCD 922610 (© 2018) (62'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alessandro Ciccolini, Marco Piantoni, violin; Rosario Di Meglio, viola; Alberto Guerrero, cello; Franco Pavan, theorbo; Pierluigi Ciapparelli, archlute; Carlo Barile, Andrea Perugi, harpsichord

Antonio Florio is one of the main promoters of Neapolitan music of the 17th and early 18th centuries. His discography includes several first recordings, often of music by composers very few music lovers - if any - had ever heard of. The present disc is another jewel in his crown: he recently delved into the oeuvre of Donato Ricchezza, which has been preserved in manuscript and is part of the Biblioteca Girolamini in Naples. It has resulted in this recording of one of Ricchezza's oratorios, and there is more to come: at the end of this disc we find a bonus track with an aria from another oratorio.

It is no surprise that Ricchezza's oeuvre is part of the Biblioteca Girolamini: he was maestro di cappella at the Girolamini, also known as Chiesa dei Filippini (named after Filippo Neri, 1515-1595, one of the promoters of the Counter Reformation). Very little is known about his life and career. He was probably born around 1650 in Naples and studied at two conservatories in succession, the Conservatorio di Loreto (where Francesco Provenzale was one of his teachers) and the Poveri di Gesù Cristo (under Giovanni Salvatore). He must have been a very good student, because at the latter institution he was appointed to the position of mastricello, meaning that he was entrusted with teaching the youngest pupils. By 1675 he was already playing - on a 'free lance' basis - in the Real Cappella. In 1680 he was appointed maestro di cappella of the Girolamini, a post he held until his death. But in 1714 he suffered a stroke and was not able to fulfill his duties. He was allowed to stay at the Oratorio, and in reward he bequeathed all his works to the Oratorian Fathers.

The extant oeuvre comprises 48 manuscripts; nine of these are listed as Oratorio. The Oratorio di San Giusto e San Pastore dates from 1683. The story transports us to the Roman Empire, and especially the persecution of Christians under emperor Diocletian in the 4th century. "Instigated by Galerius, Diocletian promulgated the first edict against Christians on February 23 in the year 303 in Nicomedia, which demanded the destruction of Christian churches and holy books, and prohibited that the faithful gather together, causing Christians established in dignity to lose their honor. Following this first edict were three others: the second edict ordered the arrest and imprisonment of all clergy; the third granted the freedom of imprisoned clergy who apostatized and abandoned Christianity, and harsh tortures for those who refused; and the fourth obliged Christians to sacrifice to the gods of the Empire or suffer death." (Home of the Mother).

On the frontispiece the oratorio is given the title 'Los santos niños' (The holy children), because it focuses on the fate of two children, Pastor and Justus, nine and seven years old respectively, who lived in Complutum (today known as Alcalá de Henares in Madrid) and were willing to give their lives for their faith. They are still venerated in Spain; in Toledo the Iglesia de los Santos Justo e Pastor was founded in the 13th century. The feast day of the Holy Children is 6 August. According to legend the two boys were part of the lineage of the powerful Astorga family, and this may explain why Ricchezza chose this subject for an oratorio: his first patron was Antonio Pedro Sancho Dávila y Osorio, the Marqués of Astorga, who had been viceroy of Naples from 1672 to 1675.

There are four characters: the two brothers, scored for soprano and alto respectively, the Roman governor Daciano (bass) and a soldier (tenor). The first part opens with a dialogue between Daciano and the soldier, which results in the two boys' being threated by death penalty. Halfway the first part they enter the story with a duet: "To school, let us to the school of love, souls, make our feet quick: whoever knows the Holy Cross is a great teacher!" The soldier tries to convince them not to declare their faith in public, but to no avail. In a trio with the soldier, the boys declare their willingness to die; this ends the first part. In the second part the boys meet Daciano, who also tries to make them see the errors of their ways. He gets increasingly enraged by the replies of the boys and in the end he decides that they have to die. They don't resist, but seem rather happy about that: "May our death be our common triumph". Question is: who is going to die first? Here, as in other passages, the text includes ingenious word-games. "Pastor wanting to be the first to die, defies Justus by saying, "Giusto se giusto sei", Justus if you are just, whereas Justus replies to him that a shepherd - "Pastore" - cannot die before his lamb" (booklet). The oratorio ends with a chorus: "Flying flames, glow with love: Yield to the ardour of these tender boys. O seraphim, burn likewise: let two children teach you how to love."

It is one of three choruses: the others open the first and the second part respectively. As the oratorio has no overture, Florio decided to play a sinfonia from the oratorio San Antonio da Padova by Gaetano Veneziano; the second part opens with another of his sinfonias, this time from the oratorio Il Tobia sposo. The oratorio comprises recitatives and arias as well as duets; the arias are short and have no dacapo. This indicates that we have to do here with an early form of the genre of the oratorio. It is not as close to opera as oratorios of the 18th century were going to be. That also comes to the fore in the character of this work. Although the storyline is dramatic, there is little real tension. It is more like a theological dispute, comparable with the philosophical debate in Alessandro Stradella's oratorio Santa Pelagia. The relative lack of drama, also in the way Ricchezza has set the story, is probably patrly due to the fact that, as Dinko Fabris suggests in his liner-notes, the roles of the two boys were originally performed by trebles rather than castratos. The most dramatic elements are to be found in the role of Daciano, which is given a very good account by Giuseppe Naviglio. Luca Cervoni does also well in the role of the soldier, but in his part there are moments where I felt that he was a bit too restrained. Federica Pagliuca and Marta Fumagalli are perfect in the parts of the boys, convincingly making them sound according to their age, with a certain kind of naivety, however without ignoring their firmness. Their voices blend immaculately in their duets.

Ricchezza shows here not only his talent for setting a text, but also his command of counterpoint. That comes to the fore in the ensembles and certainly the instrumental parts. That must have been partly due to his own skills as a violinist. The players of the Cappella Napolitana give a fine account of themselves here.

This oratorio is a major discovery, and the bonus track suggests that other music by Ricchezza may be just as worthwhile. I am looking forward to upcoming recordings of other parts of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Luca Cervoni
Marta Fumagalli
Cappella Neapolitana

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