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Antonio GIANNETTINI (1649 - 1721): L'uomo in bivio

Francesca Boncompagni (Angelo), soprano; Marta Fumagalli (Uomo), mezzo-soprano; Massimo Altieri (Testo), tenor; Salvo Vitale (Demonio), bass
Cantar Lontano
Dir: Marco Mencoboni

rec: Nov 24 - 26, 2016, Pesaro (PU), Pieve vecchia di Ginestreto
Glossa - GCD 923524 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.26'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ziga Faganel, Klodiana Babo, violin; Anselmo Pelliccioni, cello; Daniele Rosi, double bass; Pedro Alcacer, theorbo; Marco Mencoboni, harpsichord

There is no lack of recordings of oratorios written by Italian composers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Unfortunately, some oratorios are performed and have been recorded several times, whereas many others are still unknown. Among the former are Stradella's San Giovanni Battista, Vivaldi's Juditha triumphans and Caldara's Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo. The oratorio which Marco Mencoboni recorded, is one of many which belong among the latter category.

One could distinguish three kinds of oratorios, as far as the subject is concerned. Many oratorios were written for performance during Lent, when the opera was closed and opera singers could be engaged for performances of oratorios. They could be about almost any subject, and usually ended with a reference to the Passion of Christ. Other oratorios were written for special occasions, often in honour of a (patron) saint. A third category concerns a particular genre, which is comparable with a 'morality play', which has its roots in the Middle Ages. In such pieces, the main protagonist, usually representing mankind, has to choose which path in life to follow: the path of virtue, which leads to heaven, or the path of worldly pleasures, which ends in hell. The most famous musical example of such a piece is Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. A lesser-known specimen is Seelewig by Sigmund Theophil Staden. Later examples are Handel's The Choice of Hercules and Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno - which one may call 'secularized' versions of what was originally part of the Christian tradition - and Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. The oratorio L'uomo in bivio by Antonio Giannettini is also such a morality play, as its title indicates: "Man at the crossroads".

Giannettini is a largely unknown quantity, which is quite surprising, given that he occupied several important positions at the music scene of his time. He was born in Fano, in what today is the province of Pesaro and Urbino, close to the Adriatic Sea. Around 1662 he settled in Venice, where he probably did receive a substantial part of his musical training. In the 1670s he sang as a bass in St Mark's. He later occupied positions as organist, first at SS Giovanni e Paolo, and later at St Mark's. In 1686 he moved to Modena, where he entered the service of Francesco II d'Este; he held this post until his death.

His oeuvre comprises oratorios, operas, secular cantatas and liturgical works, among them Magnificat settings and motets. Little of his output is available on disc. Marco Mencoboni included some of his liturgical works in his recording "Notti di Modena" (E Lucevan Le Stelle, 2005). Arias from operas are included in anthologies by Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Filippo Mineccia. The present recording seems to be the only one devoted to his oratorio output. It dates from 1687 and is his third oratorio. Giannettini started to write oratorios after he had moved to Modena, which is not surprising, considering that the oratorio was the favourite musical genre of his new employer, Francesco II d'Este. Six oratorios would follow. Unfortunately only four of his nine oratorios have been preserved.

L'uomo in bivio is a typical product of its time. It can be situated halfway the development from a purely sacred - and mostly liturgical - oratorio, as it was written by the likes of Giacomo Carissimi, to the oratorio of the early 18th century, which was not very different from opera. The inclusion of a role for a narrator (Testo - a role we also find in Carissimi's oratorios) attests to that. The other roles are Man (Uomo; alto), an angel (Angelo; soprano) and the devil (Demonio; bass). The instrumental scoring is very modest: two violins and basso continuo. Marco Mencoboni, in his liner-notes, states that it was possible to extend the ensemble, if a performance took place in a larger venue. For his recording he opted for the original line-up. The few choruses are sung by the soloists.

The oratorio is divided into two parts. It opens with a sinfonia, and then we get a sequence of recitatives and arias. The recitatives are not like those in later oratorios; they still have the traces of the monodic style that we find in Carissimi's oratorios. The arias are mostly rather short, and have no dacapo. In the arias, the singers are sometimes accompanied by the violins, but in others the latter only play ritornellos. Both the first and the second part include a duet of angel and devil. They are the main characters, as they try to convince Man to choose their side. A particularly noteworthy part of the story is when Man seems to fall for the temptation of a worldly life, and the angel leads him in front of an open grave. There he sees the decomposing and rotting body of the girl he fell in love with. "This horrible scene makes him repent and change his mind: he chooses the path of faith that will lead him to the Holy Mountain. The last attempts of the devil are therefore vain and he falls into hell" (booklet).

Marco Mencoboni has spent much time at the research of the life and oeuvre of Giannettini, and this recording is evidently a work of love. He is impressed by the quality of Giannettini's music, and I tend to share his judgement. Unfortunately, Glossa has not done Giannettini's music and the listener any service by omitting translations of the libretto. If one does not know Italian - like many potential listeners - it is virtually impossible to follow the story, to grasp the dramatic features of this oratorio and to assess the way Giannettini has treated the text (written by an unknown poet). That is also a serious handicap in the assessment of this recording, as Google Translate was of no help whatsoever.

In the light of this, my judgment is provisional. I have certainly enjoyed the music; it is my impression that Giannettini was indeed a fine composer. What I have heard here makes me curious about other parts of his oeuvre. Even though I did understand little of the text, I can say that the performers deliver good performances. Massimo Altieri has a bit of a shaky start, but in the course of the performance gives an assured account of the role of the Testo. Salvo Vitali has found exactly the right approach to the role of Demonio: strong and fearsome, without exaggerating in too operatic a way. Francesca Boncompagni is his perfect counterpart and gives a fine interpretation of her arias, Marta Fumagalli is impressive in the role of Man: not very strong and self-assured, but rather hesitant and insecure. I have heard all singers in earlier recordings, and in particular Boncompagni and Fumagalli are stylistically more convincing here than I have heard them before. That may well be the influence of Marco Mencoboni.

Overall, I rate this production positively, and am happy to have had the opportunity to get acquainted with Giannettini in a larger work than some short arias. Let's hope that other oratorios from his pen can be recorded, then hopefully released with English translations of the librettos.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Massimo Altieri
Francesca Boncompagni
Marta Fumagalli
Cantar Lontano

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