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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): La Gloria di Primavera

Suzana Ograjenšek (Estate), soprano; Diana Moore (Primavera), mezzo-soprano; Clint van der Linde (Autunno), alto; Nicholas Phan (Inverno), tenor; Douglas Williams (Giove), bass-baritone
Philharmonia Chorale; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Nicholas McGegan

rec: Oct 4 - 6 & 10, 2015 (live), Berkeley, CA, First Congregational Church
Philharmonia Baroque Productions - PBP-09 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (2.18'36")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Knowledge of the political history of Europe is sometimes necessary in order to put compositions in their context and understand their content. That is also the case with the present recording of a serenata by Alessandro Scarlatti. In 1713 the Peace of Utrecht brought the War of the Spanish Succession to an end. This war was the direct result of Charles II, King of Spain and a member of the Habsburg dynasty, dying without a male heir. From that perspective it is understandable that Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, hove a sigh of relief when on 13 April 1716 his son Leopold was born. Having a male heir could prevent another war of succession to break out after his own death. The joy about the birth of Leopold was such that in Naples which was under Austrian rule since 1714 - as a result of the war - Prince Gaetano d'Aragona and his wife commissioned Abbate Nicolo Giovo to write the libretto of a serenata and Alessandro Scarlatti to set it to music. Unfortunately the relief of Charles and his subjects was premature: Leopold died on 4 November of that same year.

The importance of the event is proven by the status of those who were involved. The librettist, Abbate Nicolo Giovo, was the private secretary of the Prince's wife, Aurora Sanseverino. He was also the author of the libretto of Handel's serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo of 1708. Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most renowned composers of his time. The singers were also among the best of the time. It seems likely that Scarlatti composed his music with their specific qualities in mind. The role of Primavera (Spring) was taken by the castrato Matteo Sassano, known as 'the nightingale of Naples'. Since the age of 19 he had sung in compositions by Scarlatti and also had close ties to the Habsburg dynasty as he had sung for King Charles II in Madrid. The role of Estate (Summer) was allocated to Margherita Durastanti, who would appear in many Handel operas in London. It is notable that these two roles appear as soprano I and II in the score but that the second soprano part has a higher tessitura than the first. Autunno (Autumn) is a role for an alto; the liner-notes don't mention the name of the singer who took that part. The tenor is known: it was Gaetano Borghi who was in the early stages of his career (he was born in 1686) and was to become a successful and versatile singer, performing in Naples but also in northern Italy and later participating in operas by Fux in Austria. Antonio Manna sang the role of Giove (Jupiter); Handel probably composed the role of Polifemo in his above-mentioned serenata for him. He was known for his wide tessitura and that is explored by Scarlatti in his composition of the role of Jupiter.

This serenata is pretty long in comparison to most pieces in this genre. The first part takes about 57 minutes, the second over 80 (at least in this performance). It opens with a celebration of the birth of Leopold. This is expressed in the opening chorus, following the sinfonia: "Now is born the Sun of Austria, bringing light to the world. No longer does the earth lament at being drenched in blood. Let the trumpets' warlike sound be stilled. Jupiter is pleased to give us, and the Empire, peace at last. 'Long live Karl and his son,' let joyous voices cry. May both of them live and reign forever here below." This section is followed by a reflection on the past (war) and present (peace). However, when Spring audaciously claims higher honours than the rest, owing to the date of the royal birth, the other seasons take exception, and all agree to invoke Jupiter to be their judge. The second part opens with the various characters singing the praise of Jupiter. Then the contest takes place; Jupiter declares Spring the winner, and the work ends with all the participants expressing the hope of a bright future for the new-born prince.

The instrumental scoring is a mixture of old and new. Old is the doubling of the viola part: five-part string writing was common in the 17th century but would make place for four-part writing after the turn of the century. A new element is the inclusion of parts for transverse flute and oboes which were still pretty new at the time. The score also includes a trumpet, obviously indispensable in a work connected to royalty. The choruses are in four parts and were in works like this usually performed by the soloists. That is confirmed by their scoring: two sopranos, alto and tenor. In this recording the soloists are joined by ripienists. I am not sure that this was a correct decision: the libretto clearly mentions the names of the characters in the scores and they also have solo lines within the choruses. In the closing chorus they are joined by Jupiter; this voice is also supported by a ripieno bass which is a bit odd.

The arias are very different in character. Some are technically demanding, others are lyrical and in many Scarlatti eloquently illustrates the text, either in the vocal part or in the instrumental parts or in both. That is the case, for instance, in the aria 'Fuor dell'urna' (Part 1; CD 1, track 8): "Gently overflowing their bed, the pretty waves, sweetly murmuring" etc. Another example is the aria 'Solca il mar' in which the wind is depicted: "When the wind and waves settle, the prudent helmsman puts out from shore, hoists sail and ploughs the sea." Matteo Sassano, the 'nightingale of Naples', was given an aria which refers to this bird: "The nightingale sings sweetly in shady vales, thanks to me alone" (Canta dolce). This aria is also in siciliano rhythm, often used in music of a pastoral character. The role of Jupiter is a pretty forceful one. He is introduced in an aria in a dotted rhythm which is called "pompous" by Bruce Lamott in his liner-notes. This could suggest that Scarlatti pokes fun at Jupiter, but that seems unfounded. If this refers to the French opera overture of Lully, it makes much sense: that was the moment the Sun King entered the theatre and that is exactly what happens here when Jupiter enters the scene.

This is a nice work and we have to be grateful that it has been brought to light after such a long time. It was performed a couple of times in 1716 and then again in London in 1721, probably on the basis of a manuscript with an English title which has been found in Hamburg. Lamott suggests that this must have been owned by Margherita Durastanti. That manuscript only includes the introduction and the arias and choruses. For that reason it is justified to claim that McGegan's performance in 2015 which is released by Philharmonia Baroque's own label was the first complete performance since 1716. As one may expect from Scarlatti it includes very fine arias, which offer the soloists the opportunity to shine. They represent various characters but these are not of the kind which require any profiling as in opera. The exception is Jupiter. Douglas Williams does well in this role and he copes with the wide range of this part pretty well. Only sometimes the lowest notes are a bit too weak. Nicholas Phan is especially notable for his excellent diction, which is particularly important in the recitatives. These are very natural in his interpretation, whereas I found the other singers a bit too stiff. On the whole the recitatives are slowish and too strict in time. This makes me think that in more appropriate tempi this work would have taken less time and the whole of Part Two may have fit on one disc. In this case the second part starts on the first disc which is less than ideal. Diana Moore is the only singer I find rather disappointing. Apart from the fact that I don't particularly like her voice - which is a matter of taste - she uses a fast and incessant vibrato which is not nice to listen to. Clint van der Linde doesn't have the most colourful alto voice but has the agility his part requires. Suzana Ograjenšek is very stylish but a little too bland. That also goes for the orchestra. I feel that an Italian ensemble and conductor might have made more from this score. The dotted rhythms in Jupiter's first aria mentioned above should have been played with a little more subtlety.

On balance, this is a good performance but not without some flaws. However, like I wrote, there is every reason to welcome this disc considering the quality of the music. It is to be hoped that the score will be published as it deserves to be performed in our time.

A word about the booklet. The information about Matteo Sassano and Margherita Durastanti is given twice. On page 9 we are told that Antonio Manna sang the role of Jupiter whereas on page 11 we read: "Whoever was cast in the bass role of Giove (Jove) must have been singer of exceptional technique" etc. This could have easily been avoided if the liner-notes had been edited more carefully. It would also have been helpful if the track-list had added the names of the characters to the various arias.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Diana Moore
Suzana Ograjenšek
Nicholas Phan
Douglas Williams
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale

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