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Antonio CALDARA (1671 - 1736): Oratorio di Santo Stefano, Primo Re dell'Ungheria

Mónika González (Gisella), soprano; Randall Scotting (Santo Stefano), alto; Dávid Szigetvári (Anastasio), tenor; László Jekl (Erasto), bass
Savaria Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Pál Németh

rec: Jan 14 - 18, 2011, Budapest, Hungaroton Studio
Hungaroton - HCD 32690 (© 2011) (78'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/H; lyrics - translations: E/H
Cover & track-list

For a long time Antonio Caldara was virtually neglected, although he was one of the most respected and famous composers of his time. This has changed in recent years, but most of his operas and oratorios - the main part of his oeuvre - are still resting unnoticed in the archives and libraries. That makes every recording of specimens in these genres welcome. The oratorio which Pál Németh has chosen for this recording is an interesting piece because of its subject matter.

The oratorio was one of the most important musical genres of the high baroque era. The subject was mostly biblical or focussed on the life of a saint. Oratorios on historical subjects were rare. One of them is the Oratorio di Santo Stefano Primo Re dell'Ungheria: the title character is Stephanus, who is considered the first King of Hungary, ruling from 1000 to 1038. There is a clear connection between the choice of this subject and the time of composition. From 1709 to 1716 Caldara was at the service of Duke Ruspoli in Rome. But he had set his eyes on a position at the imperial court in Vienna. The first contacts with the then Archduke Charles III - the later Emperor Charles VI - date from 1708 when Caldara went to Barcelona where Charles was to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He joined Charles again in 1711 in Milan, when he was on his way to Frankfurt to be crowned emperor of the Habsburg empire. The next year Caldara composed his oratorio while staying in Vienna. The choice of subject was clearly inspired by Charles, who was also King of Hungary (as Charles III). It is probably not too far-fetched to assume that Caldara saw another opportunity to recommend himself to the emperor.

But there is more to this oratorio, as Eniko Gyenge writes in the liner-notes. Caldara sent his oratorio to Duke Ruspoli "in the hope it would be produced before the Lenten tide yet. The text of the oratorio had namely a political 'message': the words of the libretto were directed at Pope Clement XI through the prominent church dignitaries visiting Duke Ruspoli's palace. Charles VI, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor three months before, did not receive the papal benediction from Pope Clement XI as the latter was bearing grudge against the House of Habsburg. The Apostolic benediction would finally arrive two years later, in 1714, following several trite diplomatic gestures ...".

In the early 18th century oratorios had moved away from the original form as established by Giacomo Carissimi in the mid-17th century. There was no narrator (testo or historicus) anymore, free poetic texts had replaced the biblical narrative and most oratorios were in the vernacular rather than Latin. In its form of recitatives and dacapo arias and in its dramatic character the oratorio had become a kind of sacred opera. The Oratorio di Santo Stefano is also a sequence of recitatives and arias, preceded by a sinfonia, and including two duets and a trio, but there is nothing dramatic about it. It rather concentrates on emphasizing that the greatness of Hungary roots in the strong faith of St Stephen. In this respect the oratorio is more like a serenata than an opera.

The recitatives and the arias are relatively short. The former are usually secco recitatives; only some are accompanied. Most arias are in dacapo form, either with basso continuo or with the whole ensemble of strings and basso continuo. In some arias the cello has an obbligato part. This is often the case in oratorios by Caldara, and can be explained by the fact that Caldara was a cellist by profession. In this recording almost all dacapos have been omitted. This was probably motivated by the wish to confine this recording to just one disc. It is the most unsatisfying aspect of this production, though. The arias become rather short-winded, and the singers have been denied the opportunity to show their skills in ornamentation. The playing of the orchestra is sometimes a bit abrasive; at various moments I would have liked a little more relaxation and warmth.

As far as the vocal performances are concerned, this recording is a mixed baggage. Randall Scotting has a nice voice and portrays St Stephen quite well. But his incessant vibrato is a pretty big blot on this production. Mónika González is stylistically more satisfying, but her reading of the role of St Stephen's wife Gisella isn't always that interesting. Dávid Szigetvári and László Jekl are very good in their roles of Anastasio (a dignitary of the Church) and Erasto (a courtier) respectively. The interpretation of the recitatives is largely satisfying in regard to rhythmic freedom.

This production is quite interesting for the reasons I have summed up in this review. It is just a shame that the interpretation leaves something to be desired. And if Caldara's music is really taken seriously, than the omission of almost all dacapos is unacceptable. The booklet contains the complete libretto with a Hungarian and an English translation. Those purchasers who are able to read Italian are lucky, as the English translation is sometimes hard to understand.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Randall Scotting
Savaria Baroque Orchestra

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