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Maria Teresa AGNESI (1720 - 1795): Arias

[I] Arie con Istromenti, 1749
Elena De Simone, mezzo-soprano
Ensemble Il Mosaico
rec: Jan 2018, Verona, Istituto Diocesano di Musica Sacra 'Santa Cecilia'
Tactus - TC 720101 (© 2019) (75'56")
Liner-notes: E/IT; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Afflitta e misera (Ciro in Armenia)a; Ah non son io che parlo (Ezio); Alla prigione antica (Il trionfo d'Amore); Lo seguitai felice (L'Olimpiade); Non dirmi crudele; Non piangete amati rai (Ciro Riconosciuto); Non so, con dolce moto il cor mi trema in seno (Ciro Riconosciuto); Scherza il pastor; Son confusa pastorella (Alessandro nell'Indie)

Gian Andrea Guerra, Lorenzo Gugole, Pietro Battistonia, violin; Alessandro Lanaro, viola; Nicola Brovelli, cello; Ivano Avesani, double bass; Enrico Bissolo, harpsichord

[II] "Arie dall'opera Sofonisba"
Elena De Simone, mezzo-soprano
Ensemble Il Mosaico
rec: July 2019, Coli (PC), Chiesa di San Vito
Tactus - TC 720102 (© 2021) (54'10")
Liner-notes: E/IT; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Recitativo introduttivo: Forse men di Roma; Dall'eterno felice soggiorno; Dubbia ancor; Da me che mai vorresti; Pensa che in te riposa; Spera Roma; Dille che se catene non vuol; Fore verrà quel dì; La tua sol fra l'alme belle

Matteo Macchia, Tiziano Tettone, ; Gian Andrea Guerra, Flavia Truppa, violin; Valentina Soncini, viola; Nicola Brovelli, cello; Filippo Calascibetta, double bass; Enrico Bissolo, harpsichord

The Italian label Tactus is one of those which often release discs with repertoire that is entirely unknown, sometimes by composers many music lovers may never have heard of. Maria Teresa Agnesi may be well one of them. However, she is not an entirely unknown quantity, as some music from her pen has been recorded before: one of her harpsichord sonatas and a harpsichord concerto are available on disc. Although her oeuvre is relatively small, it is rather surprising that she seems to have received little attention, as by all accounts she was a most remarkable woman.

She was born in Milan, and lived there all her life. She showed her musical talents at a young age, but as she was from an aristocratic family, it was impossible to be a professional musician. She performed with her equally talented sister, and as the French author Charles de Brosses heard them, he was very impressed. She was educated at the keyboard, which explains why she at an early age played pieces by Rameau, and also composed for the harpsichord. She was also an excellent singer, and this comes to the fore in the various vocal compositions in her oeuvre, among them operas and the collection of arias which is the subject of the first disc under review here.

Agnesi was not the first who wrote an opera about Sofonisba. Earlier Christoph Willibald von Gluck and Niccolò Jommelli had done the same. They used different librettos, and Agnesi set a third, but as this libretto has not been preserved, it is not known who the author was. Robert L. Kendrick, in his liner-notes, mentions that the story of Agnesi's opera is simpler than those set by Gluck and Jommelli. It was probably written between 1747 and 1749 and has been preserved in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, with the Habsburg arms on its binding. This indicates that Agnesi composed this work for performance in Vienna; it was dedicated to Francis of Lorraine, consort of Empress Maria Theresa. She may have hoped for a performance on the empress's name day, but there are no records of a performance, and the score also does not include any performance markings.

The orchestral scoring is for strings and basso continuo and includes obbligato parts for piccolos, oboes, horns and trumpets. The latter are involved in two martial arias included in the selection from the opera recorded by Elena De Simone. The programme opens with a recitative, which is followed by an aria with obbligato trumpets. Next follow six arias of different characters in the soprano and alto range, and the disc closes with an aria in honour of the Austrian empress.

The Arie con Instromenti of 1749 were dedicated to Her Electoral Highness Maria Antonia Walpurgis Symphorosa, spouse to the heir of the throne of Saxony. She sent Maria Teresa a letter, in which she expressed her satisfaction with the arias. She knew what she was talking about, as she was active as a composer herself. "Good taste prevails in them, and the art in them is the more admirable in that it perfectly expresses the natural meaning of the words".

However, the latter statement cannot be checked, as the booklet omits the lyrics. That goes for the second disc as well; at the reverse of both we find a link to the Tactus site, where the lyrics should be available. Unfortunately that is not the case. Even if they would be available, they probably would come without English translations, which would make them hard to understand by those who don't speak Italian. Because of that I have to assess these two discs by the music alone and the performances by the way of singing and playing, without paying attention to the way the text is treated by the composer and by the performers.

The Arie con Instromenti are pretty long, and are operatic in character. That does not surprise, as most of them are taken from opera librettos by Pietro Metastasio, the main librettist of the time. Some operas are rather well known, such as Alessandro nell'Indie, Ezio and L'Olimpiade. Obviously, all those arias are in dacapo form. Nine of the twelve arias from the collection were selected for the recording. Two of them are settings of a text whose author is unknown, and it seems possible that Agnesi wrote these texts herself.

The arias are very different in character and mood, which is reflected in the key and musical figures. The liner-notes include short descriptions of the arias. We read, for instance, that "[while] in Son confusa pastorella [Agnesi] highlights a state of disorientation in a dark night by means of quick descending scales played by the string instruments, in Non so, con dolce moto the trembling of a throbbing heart is portrayed with an almost sobbing rhythm." That certainly helps to pay attention to particularly noteworthy features of an aria, but does not compensate for the lack of lyrics. The arias are technically demanding, some of them more than others. One example of a virtuosic aria is Ah non son io che parlo, which includes wide intervals and requires great technical skills.

The lack of lyrics don't prevent me from concluding that Maria Teresa Agnelli was an excellent composer who fully deserves the attention she is given by Elena De Simone and the Ensemble Il Mosaico. The arias from her opera Sofonisba confirm my conclusion. There is quite some variety among them, spanning the whole range from the belligerent to the intimate. The closing aria, La tua sol fra l'alme belle, is one of the most beautiful, with a nice swaying rhythm. It seems to me that there are good reasons for a complete performance and recording of Sofonisba.

Elena De Simone was a new name to me. She turns out to be the ideal interpreter of this repertoire. I enjoyed her singing on both discs, but in her performance of the arias from Sofonisba she is even better than in the arias from the 1749 collection. She has no problems with the different tessituras of the arias, and she sings with great sensitivity. The more extraverted arias come off just as well as the more lyrical ones. She does not only convince in the technical department, but also stylistically. Too often I hear singers who have all the technical skills that are needed, but miss the point in stylistic matters. I am happy to say that this is not the case here. The Ensemble Il Mosaico is the perfect partner. It delivers fine performances of the instrumental parts, substantially contributing to the affetti expressed in the various arias. The obbligato parts are perfectly executed.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Il Mosaico

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