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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): L'Assunzione della Beata Vergine

Béatrice Gobin (Sposo), Aurora Peña (Sposa), soprano; Mélodie Ruvio (Amore), contralto; Matthieu Peyrègne (Eternità), alto
Ensemble Baroque de Monaco
Dir: Matthieu Peyrègne

rec: Nov 22 - 25, 2017, Villeneuve-Loubet, Église Saint-Marc
Paraty - 118176 (© 2018) (63'15")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Michel Coppé, André Costa, Linda Prebbenow, Céline Steiner, Regina Yugovich, Elvira Martinez, violin; Delphine-Anne Rousseau, Catherine Hallot, viola; Myriam Ropars, viola da gamba; Nicolas Verhoeven, cello; Jean-Emmanuel Caron, double bass; Dimitri Goldobine, lute; Marianne Salmon, theorbo; Charlotte Marck, harpsichord

The veneration of Mary in the Christian Church has a long history. It increased in importance during the Middle Ages and was given special attention as part of the Counter Reformation. The present disc includes an oratorio, which is about one aspect of the Marian cult: her assumption.

"Belief that Mary has been taken up and is now in heaven with both her body and her soul has been part of the teaching of the Catholic Church since the earliest centuries of Christianity. The strongest evidence for the belief of the early Christians is found in ancient liturgies and in homilies in honor of Mary's passing. A second source, widely spread in the Middle Ages is known as the Transitus writings. (...) By the end of the Middle Ages, belief in Mary's Assumption into heaven was well established theologically and part of the devotional expressions of the people. The word Assumption comes from the Latin verb assumere, meaning "to take to oneself." Our Lord, Jesus Christ took Mary home to himself where he is." (Benjamin-Joseph SteensIsabell Naumann, Catholic Institute of Sidney).

In the libretto which Alessandro Scarlatti set to music, written by Cardinal Ottoboni, one of Rome's main patrons of the arts, Mary's assumption has a special flavour. It is part of another tradition, which sees Mary as the bride of Christ. This is closely connected with the spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), one of the books of the Old Testament, which is a poem about the love of a young man and a young woman. In the course of history the young man was associated with Christ and the young woman with the Virgin Mary. One of the most notable aspects is the conflation of the various roles of Christ. That is clearly expressed in the last recitative of this oratorio, when Sposa (the Bride) says: "Yes, my Lord, my Spouse, my Father and my Son, My Hope and Peace (...)".

L'Assunzione della Beata Vergine was first performed on 1 April 1703 at the Oratorio dei Fillipini di Sancti Cantici, close to the Santa Maria di Vallicella Church. It was the congregation of this Oratory, founded in the second half of the 16th century by Filippo Neri, which lends its name to the oratorio genre. In its vocal scoring it differs from the traditional form of the oratorio. Such pieces were usually scored for five soloists (SSATB), who also took care of the choruses. This oratorio has only four roles, which are allocated to two sopranos and two altos. There are no choruses, and the duets are scored for two equal voices (SS or AA). The instrumental ensemble consists of two violins, viola and basso continuo. Whereas oratorio and opera became increasingly alike towards the end of the 17th century, this oratorio is anything but dramatic, which does not surprise, considering its subject.

The oratorio opens with a sinfonia, and then Sposo expresses his happiness with the love of Sposa, which is confirmed by Amore: "Yes, your bride loves you, and you love her so much that you needn't call upon Love to assist you". The most dramatic part is a symphony, which leads to Sposa's recitative, in which she says that a "terrible phantom" robs her of her sleep: she thinks her spouse is dead. Amore then reveals the identity of her spouse: "Already the victor over suffering and affliction, he holds the laurel. The Lord of the Ages fears no death, and together with him, I will ensure the eternal joy of love." A duet of spouse and bride announces what is going to happen: "Let me go, then, to reign with you in the heavenly kingdom / Come, cross with me the luminous path!". The first part ends with an aria of Eternità: "Come, let her reign if omnipotent Love gives her such a destiny. This Love makes Heaven and Earth enamored of the fair virgin".

The second part opens with an aria of the bride: "My free desire flees faithfully like a dove to her dear nest." In a duet Love and Eternity discuss whether she is worth being ascended "to the highest spheres". They conclude: "[She], marvelous and wondrous, will certainly be the bride of the most sovereign king." The spouse's aria 'Vieni, e port'al cielo' sums up the core of the doctrine of Mary's assumption: "Come and bring to Heaven both your spirit and your body. That body, in the vestige of your mortality, retains your soul." The oratorio ends with a duet of spouse and bride: "Sweet name / Beloved Son, true font of mercy".

The oratorio consists of a sequence of recitatives and arias. Most of the recitatives are of the secco type, but there are also a few accompanied recitatives. The arias, which all have a dacapo, are relatively short; only a few take more than three minutes. The longest is 'Fide amiche' in the first part, which the bride sings after awakening from her bad dream: "Faithful friends, maidens of Zion, lovely daughters of Zion, tell me: where is my beloved? If he is dead, return full of tears and grant me his death!" It is part of the only really dramatic part of this work. Most arias are scored for a solo voice and strings. In a couple of arias, the accompaniment is reduced to basso continuo, but these always end with a ritornello for the strings. The aria I just mentioned has an obbligato part for the violin. The aria of the spouse, 'Vieni, o port'al cielo', includes an obbligato cello part. It is in fact a duet of soprano and cello, in which they regularly imitate each other. The duet of Love and Eternity I already referred to, is a nice example of the way Scarlatti illustrates the text in his music: the joint conclusion of the two characters is depicted in that they largely sing in unison.

This is the first recording of a work which, according to the booklet, is Scarlatti's last oratorio to be rediscovered. It is very much a work of labour of Matthieu Peyrègne, who did extensive research and spent much time in preparing a performance and recording. It was well worth the effort, as this is a very fine work, which will hopefully be available in a modern edition. With its length of just over an hour it is well suited for live performances. It requires only a few singers and a small instrumental ensemble. In this recording six violins and two violas are involved, but it is certainly possible to perform it with one instrument per part. Peyrègne also opted for a varied line-up of the basso continuo section. "I insisted on adding two bowed basses, a baroque cello, a viola da gamba, a lute, a theorbo and a baroque contrabass. I ended up choosing different sorts of continuo according to the action and the roles, for example a light continuo for Love and the Virgin, or the inclusion of the baroque contrabass in the melodies of God and Eternity." It works very well and creates some nice variety in the performance.

I have not only enjoyed the oratorio, but also the performance. I probably would have liked the two sopranos to be a bit more different; especially as they often sing in succession and in duet, they are just a little too much alike. They both use a bit too much vibrato now and then, but overall their performances are quite good. There is a more marked difference between the two altos, as one is female and the other male. Both have very nice voices, and give good accounts of their respective parts. All four soloists are responsive to the text and the character of this work. The instrumental ensemble is excellent. This oratorio is a work of an expressive nature and that comes off very well here.

This disc is a substantial addition to the Scarlatti discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Aurora Peña
Mélodie Ruvio
Ensemble Baroque de Monaco

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