musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Francisco António DE ALMEIDA (c1702 - c1755): Il Trionfo d'Amore

Ana Quintans (Nerina), Joana Seara (Termosia), soprano; Cátia Moreso (Giana), mezzo-soprano; Carlos Mena (Arsindo), alto; Fernando Guimarães (Adraste), tenor; João Fernandes (Mirenio), bass
Voces Caelestes; Os Músicos do Tejo
Dir: Marcos Magalhães

rec: Nov 18 - 24, 2013, Lisbon, Instituto Superior de Economio e Gestão (Salão Nobre)
Naxos - 8.573380-81 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.51'18")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

During the 17th century large parts of Europe came under the spell of the Italian style. There were also some countries which resisted any Italian influence. In some this lasted until the very end of the century or even the first decades of the 18th. The latter was the case with Portugal. During the first part of the 18th century the Italian style became dominant and that was not coincidental but the result of King João IV trying to stamp the authority of the monarchy on cultural life of the country. To that end he needed to subordinate the Church to the monarchy. "He managed it through a highly skilled process that transformed the Royal Chapel into the Patriarchal Church, and culminated in the metamorphosis of the highest authority of the Church in Portugal, the Patriarch, into the mere Chaplain to the King of Portugal." (booklet)

In order to guarantee the quality of music making both music and musicians were imported from Italy and in 1713 the Royal Patriarchal Seminary of Music was created. Students from the seminary were sent to Italy to further their education. Some of them would develop into renowned composers: António Teixeira, João Rodrigues Esteves and Francisco António de Almeida. The latter is the composer of the serenata Il Trionfo d'Amore which was recorded by Marcos Magalhães, following his recording of Almeida's opera La Spinalba (Naxos, 2012).

Not that much is known about Almeida's life. New Grove confines itself to mention that he flourished between 1722 and 1752. Apparently more recent research has resulted in the year of his birth given as "c.1702" at the rear of the present disc. It is assumed that he died around 1755, and he may have been one of the victims of the earthquake which destroyed large parts of Lisbon that year. It is also not exactly known when he arrived in Italy but he was there in 1722 at the latest, and stayed until 1726. During his time in Rome two oratorios from his pen were performed: in 1722 ll pentimento di Davidde and in 1726 La Giuditta. The latter was one of the few works which was performed in modern times. Otherwise hardly any of his compositions seem to have made it to disc until Magalhães started to explore his oeuvre. That is rather surprising considering that he is rated highly, for instance by Manuel Carlos de Brito in New Grove who calls La Giuditta a masterpiece.

After his return to Portugal Almeida was appointed organist of the Patriarchal Church. The first performance of a work from his pen took place in April 1728; that was his serenata Il Trionfo della Virtù. As a composer Almeida produced sacred music, five serenatas and three operas. Serenatas were usually performed at the occasion of birthdays or namedays of members of the royal family. Il Trionfo d'Amore, called a scherzo pastorale, was first performed at the Ribeira Palace on 27 December 1729, the feast of John the Baptist, one of João IV's namedays. The title of the work indicates what it is about but the first part is probably more serious in content than the stuff many serenatas were made of.

After an introduzione in three movements a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses calls on the gods to descend and bless the happy couple, about to be joined in marriage. One of them is Adraste, the other name is not mentioned but later its is revealed that it is Nerina. However, Adraste appears in the temple, dressed in woman's clothes, and as this is considered sacrilege the priest Mirenio seeks to know what madness has led Arsindo so to offend, pledging to all the gods, to whom he is a minister, that Arsindo must pay the penalty of death. In the second part this is to happen but he is saved from death when Mirenio sees a "divine and prophetic light" which breaks through the night. It is revealed that Arsindo is not guilty, but is in fact the man truly destined by oracular prophecy to marry Nerina. Many serenatas end with a homage to the person whose birthday or nameday is celebrated. That is not the case here: two weddings are to take place and the piece ends with the shepherds and shepherdesses joining in a song of praise for Love.

Despite the pretty dramatic stuff this is - and was probably not intended to be - a really dramatic work. It is more about the emotions of the various characters and their feelings for each other. There would have been more of a drama if Arsindo had resisted his death sentence but he resigns himself to his fate and confines himself to an expression of his constancy in his love for Nerina. A serenata was mainly intended for enjoyment and there can be little doubt that the royal audience must have been very pleased by what they heard. This piece is full of fine arias, especially in the second part. Arsindo's aria 'Ove mi conducesti' is splendid and 'Orride e dispietate furie' is a brilliant fiery aria sung by Giano. Very different is the wonderful aria of Nerina, 'In queste lacrime'. It seems the strings play here with mutes which reflects the tenderness of Nerina's words. That is not the only moment when instruments contribute to the expression of this work. The first part ends with the beautiful duet of Arsindo and Nerina, 'Se m'abbandoni, dolce mia' (If you abandon me, my sweet hope) in which the strings are joined by two recorders. In the aria of Adraste, 'Da due venti', the strings eloquently depict the blowing of two winds: "Buffeted by two winds, the tender young sapling is pulled in opposite directions: so too is my wretched heart torn." The andante from the introduzione includes an obbligato part for violin.

The instrumental parts are nicely played. Overall the vocal parts receive equally good performances. The only slight disappointment is João Fernandes who has a nice voice but is a little too leightweight in the role of Mirenio, the high priest. The aria 'Si cinga il perfido' - "Let the wrongdoer be bound with the terrible knots of the vengeful gods, prepare the sacrifice, the punishment is just" - is too harmless. Ana Quintans and Carlos Mena are excellent as Nerina and Arsindo respectively. Cátia Moreso uses a little too much vibrato but the sharp edges in her voice result in an effective account of Giano's aria mentioned above. Joana Seara is responsible for some of the finest singing on this set. Fernando Guimarães does well but I don't find his voice that interesting or attractive. But that is largely a matter of taste. The only aspect which raises questions is the way the cadenzas are sung. In some cases they cross the natural tessitura of a part and as far as I know that was not considered appropriate at the time. They also tend to be a little too long such as in the B part from the duet which closes part I.

What I have heard from Almeida so far suggests that his oeuvre deserves to be further explored. Hopefully Marcos Magalhães will have the opportunity to bring out more compositions from this master's pen.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Fernando Guimarães
Cátia Moreso
Joana Seara
Voces Caelestes
Os Músicos do Tejo

CD Reviews