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Concert reviews

Ziani (MA): Il sacrificio d'Isacco, oratorio
Anne Grimm, Anabela Marcos (soprano), Janine Pas (mezzosoprano), Immo Schröder (tenor), Henk Neven (bass), Utrechts Barok Consort/Jos van Veldhoven

concert: Utrecht, Nov. 10, 2000

Marc'Antonio Ziani was born in Venice around 1653. He got his first music lessons from his uncle, Pietro Andrea Ziani. In 1686 he became maestro di capella at Santa Barbara in Mantua, where Antonio Caldara was one of his pupils. After some years he moved back to Venice. At the end of the 17th century he was a famous composer and the leading opera composer of Venice. In 1700 he became vice-maestro di capella at the imperial court in Vienna, in 1712 maestro di capella. He died in Vienna 1715.
The oratorio Il sacrifizio d'Isacco was composed in 1707. It was a so-called sepolcro, an oratorio in one part, to be performed at the night of Good Friday. Such a sepolcro was scored for solo voices with strings and bc. It was performed on stage, like an opera.
The libretto was written by Pietro Antonio Bernardoni and is based on Genesis 22, 1-18, which tells the story of Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. But in the libretto the story is extended. For dramatic reasons two characters are taking part, which the Bible tells nothing about: a servant of Abraham (Un servo d'Abramo) and Abraham's wife Sara, who has a rather small role. Then, since it was performed at Good Friday, there had to be a link with the death of Jesus at the cross. So in the end the angel not only interferes to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac, but also announces the death of the Son of God at the same hill, where the sacrifice should take place. This sacrifice symbolises the sacrifice which did take place, many centuries later.
The work starts with a sinfonia in F minor with the characterisation "grave", which creates a sombre atmosphere. Sinfonias like these were quite common in Vienna - for example by Caldara. Most of Abraham's arias are in minor keys, whereas Isaac's are in major, as long as he doesn't know what is going to happen. The instrumentation is also interesting: in one aria the soloist is accompanied by two solo violins, in another there are three solo violin parts: soprano, alto and tenor. And at the end in an aria by the angel a virtuoso solo part is given to a trombone.
There are some very dramatic moments in this oratorio, in particular when the angel intervenes to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac. The characterisation of the personalities is very good as well. Abraham is portrayed as a man who is torn between sadness about the forthcoming death of his son and his will to do what God has asked him. Isaac, on the other hand, is a very lively character. When he knows what is going to happen he insists on going on with it and accepts his fate: he prefers his own death to that of his father.

The performance as a whole was quite good, as could be expected from this ensemble. Jos van Veldhoven, who is also the conductor of the Netherlands Bach Society, has founded the ensemble in 1976 and has performed many vocal works of the 17th and 18th century, some well-known, but preferably lesser known or totally unknown works. For his performances he brings together a cast which is a mixture of experienced and young singers, stimulating them to learn from each other. One can argue about the quality of some of the soloists he uses, but on the whole the performances of the UBC are memorable. Since about five years the UBC performs three vocal works every season, of which two are hardly known. In recent years operas by Bononcini, Keiser and Mattheson have been performed.
In the Ziani oratorio the role of Abraham was sung by the bass Henk Neven. He did that quite well: his voices lacks some strength, but that was very appropriate for this role. What I missed was some strength in the lower register: he had some problems with the lower notes of his part. The role of Isaac was excellently realised by the soprano Anne Grimm, who has a very clear and light voice, which is very well suited to the role of the young Isaac. Sara was sung by the Portuguese soprano Anabela Marcos. She wasn't bad, but I didn't particularly like her voice and her vibrato was too wide for my taste. The young German tenor Immo Schröder, who is also a member of the Collegium Vocale, sang the role of Abraham's servant. He is a very good singer: I liked his clear voice and his excellent articulation. This is a name to remember, because I believe he has a good future as a solo singer. Then the angel: the performance of Janine Pas, who was announced as a mezzosoprano, but sounded much more like a contralto to me, made me aware once again why I find contraltos in baroque music often problematic. Her voice was just too deep and dark to be convincing in this role. Yes, it is a dramatic role here - but I think that a performance by a male alto (with a voice like David Cordier or Graham Pushee) would be much more convincing. The balance with the (small) orchestra was a problem as well.

On the whole, though, it was a fine performance. There is still a lot to discover, in particular oratorios of Ziani's time. This kind of music hasn't been explored systematically yet. Hopefully that will happen in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2000)

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