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Antonio CESTI (1623 - 1669): Le disgrazie d'Amore, dramma giocosomorale in 3 acts

Cristiana Arcari (Allegria), Elena Cecchi Fedi (Amicizia), Paolo Lopez (Amore), Maria Grazia Schiavo (Venere), soprano; Gabriella Martellacci (Adulazione), contralto; Francesco Ghelardini (Cortigiano), Martin Oro (Avarizia), alto; Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Amante), Carlos Natale (Inganno), tenor; Furio Zanasi (Vulcano), baritone; Antonio Abete (Bronte), Luigi De Donato (Piragmo), Enea Sorini (Sterope), bass
Auser Musici
Dir: Carlo Ipata

rec: Feb 9 - 15, 2009, San Giuliano Terme (Pisa), Villa Agostini della Seta, Corliano
Hyperion - CDA67771/2 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (2.33'32")

Martino Noferi, recorder, shawm; François De Rudder, dulcian; Raul Orellana, Daniela Godio, violin; Luca Ronconi, Heilke Wulff, viola da braccio; Riccardo Coelati, Cristiano Contadin, Paolo Zuccheri, viola da gamba; Francesco Galligioni, Carlo Zanardi, viola da gamba, cello; Francesco Romano, theorbo; Margaret Koell, harp; Alessandra Artifoni, harpsichord; Carlo Pernigotti, organ

Opera was one of the main musical genres in 17th-century Italy. A large number of operas were composed, and only a small number of them are performed today. The best-known composers are Monteverdi and Cavalli, both mainly working in Venice. Antonio Cesti is a less familiar name, but in his time he was much admired. One of his operas is still mentioned in history books: Il pomo d'oro, a work of Wagnerian proportions.

Although Cesti is mainly associated with Venice, he worked also in Florence, Vienna and Innsbruck. He was born in Arezzo and received his first musical education as a choirboy in Arezzo Cathedral. He furthered his skills in Rome, where he was a pupil of, among others, Carissimi. Although he was ordained priest he acted as a singer, actor and composer. He also worked as maestro di cappella of Volterra Cathedral for a while. He has left a very small number of sacred compositions, though.

The bulk of his oeuvre contains secular cantatas and operas. Le disgrazie d'Amore dates from 1667, when Cesti was active as vice-Kapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna. This opera is called a dramma giocosomorale, translated in the booklet as a 'moralizing comic opera'. Cesti was especially noteworthy for his portrayal of comic characters, and this opera is full of them. The subject is of a mythological nature, as the characters in the heading show. But unlike other operas, where the gods are portrayed in their superiority, here the librettist Francesco Sbarra aims at mocking the pagan deities and the morally reprehensible excesses caused by amorous passion: "Just as, by introducing to this comic drama some of the false gods of the pagans, I have had no other purpose but to deride their folly". This was partly an answer to the criticism raised in several writings of the time about the immorality of the Venetian musical dramas.

The story is about Cupid (Amore), son of Venus (Venere). The latter laments the fact that she was forced to marry Vulcan (Vulcano), blacksmith of the Olympian gods, who is also deeply unhappy about their marriage. They consider Cupid the cause of their fate and treat him badly, but he bites Vulcan's ear and steals Venus's beauty case, making a mockery of what she needs to look pretty. "Moon oil, powdered marcasite, and talcum powder, arsenic, antimony and sublimate; no wonder, then, if feminine beauty, cruel, perfidious and evil, will always cause a thousand ills, since it relies on damnable, deadly poisons". He flies and Vulcan and Venus decide to chase him. Vulcan leaves his forge to his employees, but they would rather drink and play games than work: "I should want to work while the boss goes on holiday? Steropes, if you believe that you are an idiot".

Flattery (Adulazione) and Deceit (Inganno) try to catch birds, but instead they catch Cupid. He is apalled that they want to sell him, but they initiate him to the real world: "That's how it goes; today everything's for sale, and those who spend can have it all. (...) Whatever is desired, titles, dignity, mercy, favours, homage, affection, and trust, it must all be bought".
Cupid escapes them, and goes to an inn, owned by Avarice (Avarizia). He is followed by Flattery and Deceit, disguised as a charlatan and a gipsy. "With a change of clothes one's real identity can be hidden. Thus any Tom, Dick and Harry can, with simple people, pass as Seneca or Plato".

They succeed in capturing Cupid again, but then Vulcan and Venus see him and buy his freedom. The true identity of Deceit and Flattery is revealed. The latter gets away with it as a courtier (Cortigiano) seeks his help to further his career: "Come with me (...) for with you to help me I can forge a bright future for myself at court".
Cupid asks Friendship (Amicizia), who initially helped him to stay away from his persecutors, to reconcile Vulcan and Venus. He agrees, "for where there is such disparity of age between husband and wife, though they spend all their time together only the affection of Friendship, not Love can mediate".

One may assume the quotations given here reflect Sbarra's views on the state of affairs in his time. In order to make his point he uses a number of allegorical characters, but the deities are not any different. This is an opera without a hero; not even Cupid's reputation remains intact. All characters are treacherous, sneaky or at least naive.

Musically this is an interesting work as it shows the development into the direction of a sharper differentiation between recitatives, ariosi and arias. There are very few repeats in the arias, and whereas some arias have an instrumental accompaniment others are with basso continuo alone, with instruments playing the ritornelli. In addition there are some duets and ensembles. The opera includes some balletti, for which - as in the performances of 1667 - instrumental pieces by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer are used. The instrumental ensemble consists of two violins, two violas, recorder, shawm and dulcian. In the basso continuo group we hear bass viol, cellos, harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ. In addition a consort of viols is used. Auser Musici plays very well, with an excellent realisation of the basso continuo. The use of an organ is a questionable, whereas the harp is a welcome addition.

The singing is at an overall very good level. The star of the show is the male soprano Paolo Lopez. I haven't heard many male sopranos who are really good, but Lopez is. He doesn't sound stressed, and his coloraturas come off well. He also gives a very good account of his role. The baritone Furio Zanasi is excellent as the down-to-earth and somewhat simpleminded Vulcan. Martin Oro portrays Avarice convincingly, and Gabriella Martellacci and Carlos Natale make a good duo as Flattery and Deceit. Maria Grazia Schiavo does well as Venus, but sometimes I missed some sharp edges in her role. Friendship is portrayed convincingly by Elena Cecchi Fedi. The smaller roles are well cast, with Antonio Abete worth of being mentioned specifically.

I have really enjoyed this opera, both because of the music and because of the performance. The booklet contains a well-written introduction, and there is a second booklet with the libretto. As I don't understand Italian I can't say if the translation by Avril Bardoni is correct, but it certainly captures the character of the libretto very well. Just reading the translation is highly entertaining.

For those who may have problems with the small letters in the booklet Hyperion has done an excellent service: the booklets of many discs - including new releases - can be downloaded in pdf-format from the Hyperion site.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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