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Attilio ARIOSTI (1666 - 1729): La profezia d'Eliseo nell'assedio di Samaria

Marie-Sophie Pollak, (Donna Prima), Marta Redaelli (Seconda Donna), soprano; Matteo Pigato (Capitano di Ioram), alto; Alessio Tosi (Eliseo Profeta), tenor; Matteo Borgioni (Ioram, Rč di Samaria), bass
Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte
Dir: Roberto Zarpellon

rec: May 12, 2017 (live), Mauerbach, Kartause Mauerbach
fra bernardo - fb 2104397 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.44'40")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Laszo Borsody, Josef Szas, trumpet; Ulli Engel, Monica Cordaz, Giada Broz, Maria Ines, Zanovello, violin; Ursula Kortschak, viola; Cristiano Contadin, Jorge Daniel Valencia, viola da gamba; Francesco Galligioni, cello; Enrico Ruberti, violone; Andrea Brassan, bassoon; Lorenzo Feder, harpsichord; Nicola Lamon, organ

Since the early 17th century the imperial court in Vienna was under the spell of the Italian style. Many composers and performers from Italy played key roles, and most of them belonged among the best in their art. Some of them are well-known and well represented on disc, but others have more or less remained in the shadow. Attilio Ariosti belongs among the latter category. He is mainly known for his sonatas for the viola d'amore, but little of his vocal output is available on disc.

Ariosti was born in Bologna and probably received his first musical education at the basilica San Petronio. In 1688 he entered the monastic Order of the Servites and served as organist at their basilica in Bologna. In the early 1690s he composed two oratorios and some instrumental music. In 1696 he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua where he composed his first opera. He was then sent to the Berlin court of Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg. Quickly he became her favourite musician and she kept him at his court for six years. He then went to Vienna where Emperor Joseph I took him into his service. There he stayed seven years and especially during the second half of this period he acted as Austrian ambassador to the states of the Italian peninsula. After the death of Joseph he entered the service of the Duke of Anjou, the future King Louis XV of France. In 1716 he went to England where he made his first appearance as a soloist on the viola d'amore between the acts of Handel's opera Amadigi. The viola d'amore was one of the instruments he played - alongside keyboard and cello; he also was a professional singer - and he composed a number of lessons and sonatas for it.

Ariosti's oeuvre comprises operas, oratorios, serenatas, a large number of cantatas and instrumental works. At least five oratorios have been preserved; the first date from 1696, the last from 1706. On Good Friday 1705 his oratorio La profezia d'Eliseo nell'assedio di Samaria was first performed in front of the Holy Tomb in the Vienna Imperial Chapel in the presence of Leopold I. The libretto is from the pen of Giovanni Battista Neri, and is based on an episode in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (the ten northern tribes), which we find in the chapters 6 and 7 of the book 2 Kings from the Old Testament. As was common practice, the story is treated with considerable freedom, in order to make it more dramatic.

The Syrian King Benhadad besieged Samaria, ruled by King Joram (whose name is not mentioned in the biblical episode). It reduced the city to starvation and even cannibalism. The latter is illustrated at the start of the episode: it is told that a woman complains to the King that she had agreed with an acquaintance that they would eat her son, and then the other woman's child. When the former's child had been eaten, the latter woman had hidden her child. This enraged the King, who gave orders to kill the Lord's prophet Elisha, as the siege was considered a punishment by the Lord. When the King arrives himself, Elisha foretells that the starvation will end. "Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria". And so it happened. The synopsis accompanying Ariosti's oratorio says that "it rained in the night and with God's permission Benhadad's army fled (...)". However, according to 2 Kings God "had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us". How exactly the libretto deals with the story is hard to grasp, unless one understands Italian, as the booklet includes the libretto without an English translation.

Until the late 17th century, oratorios usually included a role for a narrator (Testo), telling the audience what was going on. When that role was omitted, it was up to some of the other characters to mention the main events needed to understand the story. Ariosti's oratorio has five characters: the two women (Donna Prima, Donna Seconda; soprano), King Joram (Ioram, Rč di Samaria; bass), his right hand (Capitano di Ioram; alto) and Elisha (Eliseo Profeta; tenor). The two women mention the state of the city, and the Capitano is the one who tells the King that the Syrians have fled. The two women play a major role in this oratorio, whereas in 2 Kings they only appear in the first section of the episode, when they appeal to the King. Here there is also a direct confrontation between Elisha and the women.

The instrumental ensemble in early oratorios was mostly very modest: two violins and basso continuo, sometimes with an additional viola, and in some arias a wind instrument, such as an oboe, a trombone or a trumpet could participate. In later oratorios, which show strong similarity with opera, the ensemble is mostly larger. Ariosti's oratorio is a bit in the middle. There are two violin parts (here doubled) and one part for viola. Most notable are the two parts for viole da gamba, which participate in some of the arias. In Italian music the viola da gamba did not play a significant role anymore, but at the imperial court it was still very valued. Even music for a consort of viols was still frequently played in Vienna around 1700. This may well explain why Ariosti decided to include two of them in his oratorio. Also notable is the participation of trumpets. They are only involved in the Sinfonia which opens the work. It is remarkable that the score does not indicate what they have to play. At several places Ariosti indicates that the trumpets have to play ("trombe suonaro sole", or just "trombe"), but the score is empty. In this performance the trumpets act as military instruments, and that is undoubtedly in accordance with the intentions of the composer. Later the trumpets join the strings. The Sinfonia also includes references to cellos and bassoon, which means that these are obligatory.

The oratorio consists of two parts. The first, following the Sinfonia, opens with a duet of the women, which is interrupted by a recitative. It is followed, as usual, by recitatives and arias. The first part closes with another duet of the women. The second part opens with an aria of the second woman. It includes another very short duet of the women and ends with a madrigale - the conclusion of the work, scored for the five voices and the strings. The first aria of the oratorio is 'Prole tenera', sung by the second woman, who is accompanied by the two viole da gamba, whose lamenting sound fits the text: "Tender offspring cease to cry". Joram's 'Armati sdegno' is very similar to an operatic rage aria. In the aria of the Capitano, 'Se si deve per sempre penar', the two violins have solo parts, and they accompany the soloist without the basso continuo. The two sections end with ritornellos for the ripieno strings, with basso continuo. Elisha's aria 'Chi col senso' is one of several, in which the singer is accompanied by basso continuo alone, and the strings play only the ritornellos. The last aria of the first part is for the second woman; it includes a solo part for the first violin, which largely imitates the voice.

The second part opens with an aria of the second woman, who is accompanied by the entire ensemble, including the viole da gamba. Again, the latter's participation fits the tenor of this aria, as here the protagonist laments the general state of the city. The strings often play tremoli, an expression of extreme sadness and pain. The second woman also sings the second aria; she is again accompanied by the viole da gamba, playing in unison. In the bass part Ariosti indicates that the harpsichord should be silent, and only another viola da gamba should play; here that part is performed at the violone. I don't know why Zarpellon decided to include the organ here. The short duet of the women is interrupted by a recitative of Joram. At the end he stops their bickering by a blunt "tacete". The aria of the first woman 'A i trionfi venire' is probably the very first in history which includes a solo part for harpsichord (six years before Handel's 'Vo fa' guerra' in Ariodante). The oratorio closes with a fugal 'madrigale'.

It is regrettable that this production comes without an English translation of the libretto. Twenty years before Ariosti Giovanni Paolo Colonna set the same libretto, but that work has never been recorded. Any attempt to find a translation of the libretto failed. Therefore I have to assess this work with some caution, but from what I understand - and the synopsis is most helpful as is the fact that the oratorio is based on a biblical story - this is a very fine and interesting work. The live performance released by fra bernardo is the first in modern times. It seems to me that it deserves to be better known, and it is to be hoped that it will be performed once again in the future. The manuscript is available at the Petrucci Music Library; a modern edition should be published. I have described in some detail the scoring of several arias, because that is one of the interesting features of this work, in particular the participation of two viole da gamba. The instrumental scoring is clearly connected to the content of the various arias, and that is one of the reasons that I sorely missed a translation of the libretto.

I have no doubt about the level of the performance. I have listened to this recording with much satisfaction. The two women are excellently portrayed by Marie-Sophie Pollak and Marta Redaelli, whose conflicts come off very well, They both have lovely voices and show a full command of the baroque style of singing. Mauro Borgioni is the perfect embodiment of King Joram; his voice has the rough edges and the power for this role. Alessio Tosi is an entirely convincing Elisha - quiet and assured. Matteo Pigato has a nice voice, but it is probably a bit too soft-grained for the role of the Capitano. There is nothing wrong with his singing, though. The ensemble is also first-class, and the obbligato parts are very well executed.

All in all, I am quite happy with this recording, which has made me curious about other vocal works from Ariosti's pen, of which I have only heard some cantatas and arias. It seems time for an Ariosti renaissance.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Mauro Borgioni
Marie-Sophie Pollak
Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte

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