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Leonardo LEO (1694 - 1744): Le nozze di Iole ed Ercole, Cantata a 3 voci

Susanne Bernhard, soprano; Kai Wessel, alto; Dominik Wörner, bass
Neue Hofkapelle München
Dir: Christoph Hammer

rec: Sept 26, 2006 (live), Vienna, Minoritenkirche
ORF - CD 3050 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (1.35'10")

Elisabeth Baumer, Markus Deuter, oboe; Lina Tur-Bonet, Ińigo Aranzasti, Ulrike Cramer, Claudia Schneider, Elisabeth Wiesbauer, violin; Éva Posvanecz, Johanna Gamerith, viola; Balász Máté, Suli Lohse, cello; Roberto Sensi, violone; Marie Bournisien, harp; Sven Schwanberger, theorbo; Christoph Hammer, Anne Marie Dragosits, harpsichord

Leonardo Leo was one of the leading composers in Naples in the first half of the 18th century. He was a pupil of the famous Conservatorio S Maria della Pietŕ dei Turchini, which he entered in 1709. Probably his first composition, a sacred drama, was performed in the conservatory in 1712 and again at the palace of the viceroy which suggests it was a great success. It was an early indication of Leo's stature as a composer of operas and sacred music. He wasn't only composing operas for Naples, as he received commissions from other cities as well, like Venice, Rome, Florence and Milan. In Naples he had to take a backseat for a while when he was overshadowed by Vinci and Hasse. But when the former died and the latter departed he became the main composer in Naples.

Stylistically he differs in some way from the more galant style of other Neapolitan masters, like Vinci. He is more conservative, for instance in his use of counterpoint. The work recorded here is certainly more than just a sequence of beautiful melodies, even though the arias in this cantata show that he was a gifted composer of melodies.

Although Le nozze di Iole ed Ercole is called a cantata it is in fact a serenade, written at the occasion of the wedding of two aristocratic persons. They are mentioned in the second part of the serenade: Francesco il Grande and Francesca, but this hasn't helped to determine exactly when this work was composed. Some scholars even doubt its authenticity.

As common in this kind of works there is no real story. In the first part we meet Ercole (Hercules) who is in love with Iole. But his grandfather Alceo (Alcaeus) urges him to defend his fatherland as the Persians have already overrun Thebes and Athens: "O sluggardly Hercules, is your virtue languishing (...) Do you prefer love to battle? (...) Remember you are Jupiter's son, therefore return to Mars' field!". But Hercules doesn't believe the fatherland is in any danger and he assures Alcaeus he will be ready when it is really necessary. In the second part Hercules and Iole confirm their love and Hercules reveals that his marriage is endorsed by his father. In this part the bass takes the role of Teseo (Theseus), a friend of Hercules, who prophecies that great and famous campaigns will be ascribed to this union.

The serenade opens with a sinfonia in three sections the second of which has an extended solo part for the oboe. A series of recitatives and arias ends in a duet of Hercules and Iole. The second part again consists of recitatives and arias and ends with a trio of all three participants.

There is a strong connection between text and music in this serenade. The recitatives are very well written and in several arias the instrumental ensemble expresses the content of the text, for example the wave motions in the brook (Ruscelletto, c'hai su le sponde) or the "murmuring of a cheerful, bubbling stream" (Come cerva). In the aria 'Sorgi, vieni' Alcaeus is accompanied by fanfare motifs in the strings: "Arise to honours new, to victories awake your spirit strong and warlike heart!" There is also some text illustration in the vocal parts, like a long coloratura on "stabile" (Vien da tuoi lumi) and a downward leap on "affanno" (fear) (Scaccia amor). Alcaeus' recitativo accompagnato 'Ah, che la patria' is another example of evocative wordpainting.

Alcaeus is the most interesting character in this piece as this is the only really dramatic role. With Dominik Wörner it is excellently cast: his dark voice and wide dynamic range make him perfectly suitable for this role, and his portrayal of Alcaeus is totally convincing. The role of Theseus seems to suit him a little less.
The sweet sound and the flexibility of Kai Wessel's voice match well with the role of Hercules in his capacity as lover. It is the same kind of sweetness I would like to hear in the role of Iole, but to my taste Susanne Bernhard's voice is just a bit too edgy and sharp to be ideally suited for this part. She is giving a good account of it, though.

This recording shows that Leonardo Leo was an excellent composer and wrote very well for the voice. It arouses my curiosity about his operas and oratorios. This serenade gives the impression they could be very worthwhile additions to the catalogue. This serenade certainly is. Christoph Hammer, with his soloists and his splendid instrumental ensemble, have again brought a novelty to our attention, which deserves nothing but praise.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Neue Hofkapelle München

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