PIER FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602 – 1676): Sospiri d’amore – Venetian Opera Duets and Arias, 1644 – 1666—Giulia Semenzato, soprano; Raffaele Pe, countertenor; La Venexiana; Claudio Cavina, conductor [Recorded in Teatro alle Vigne, Lodi, Italy, in December 2015; Glossa GCD 920940; 1 CD, 60:07; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnlineHD, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]
Collaborations among artists are the most structurally substantial cornerstones upon which Classical Music is built. Whether contributing to the creation or the performance of music, artistic relationships define the pasts, presents, and futures of all genres of Classical Music, the exchanges of ideas spurred by the creative impulses producing both great masterpieces of Western music and legendary performances of them. Händel and Senesino, Mozart and Da Ponte, Rossini and Colbran, Bellini and Romani, and Verdi and Boito are the sorts of artistic unions that have yielded history-altering works, but no less vital to the development of musical traditions are the collaborations among fellow musicians. As the Bible suggests and Abraham Lincoln reminded, houses divided against themselves cannot stand: from a musical perspective, how long can any musical ensemble whose members do not have at least a respectful rapport endure? United in celebration of the musical genius of Pier Francesco Cavalli, soprano Giulia Semenzato and countertenor Raffaele Pe construct during the sixty minutes of Sospiri d’amore an edifice as gratifyingly solid as the still-strong marvels of ancient Rome. The combatants in this musical Colosseo, situated by Glossa’s engineering in a ingratiatingly natural acoustic, are more delicate than Rome’s legendary gladiators and fearsome beasts, but opening one’s ears and heart to their contests reveals that the musical weapons that they wield are just as penetrating as polished blades and gnashing teeth.
Under the direction of Claudio Cavina, himself a much-admired altus, the musicians of La Venexiana fully embrace the spirit of collaboration that exists between Semenzato and Pe. Though details of his career are more documented than those of many of his contemporaries, Cavalli’s musical world nonetheless remains enigmatic in some crucial ways. Born in the commune of Crema in the Italian region of Lombardia on 14 February 1602, Cavalli received from Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, and a handful of other, less-familiar innovators the first fruits of a concerted effort at achieving through song a renaissance of stylized Hellenic drama. From these fruits, Cavalli extracted an essence that was distilled into opera in the form in which it passed through the hands of guardians like Agostino Steffani into the company of geniuses of the ilk of Georg Friedrich Händel and thus into every subsequent generation of composers, performers, and observers. Cavalli is no less significant to the development of opera than Monteverdi, Händel, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner; more so, in fact, for without Cavalli’s clear differentiations of recitatives, ariosos, arias, and ensembles, the roads to Tamerlano, Così fan tutte, Falstaff, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg would have been considerably more difficult to navigate. Questions about instrumentation and the precise constitution of the continuo in Cavalli’s operas likely will never be answered with certainty or finality, but the solutions proposed on this disc by La Venexiana’s players—Efix Puleo and Daniela Godio on violin, Luca Moretti on viola, Antonio Papetti on cello, Alberto Lo Gatto on violone, Chiara Granata on triple harp, Gabriele Palomba and Diego Cantalupi on theorbo, and Luca Oberti on harpsichord—compellingly evoke the grandeur of Cavalli’s mature style whilst also ideally preserving the emotional intimacy of his finest music. Cavina’s alert, wonderfully ‘vocal’ pacing and the entrancing battery of sounds produced by the musicians combine in each selection—each of the cleverly-contrasted but complementary sighs, that is—on Sospiri d’amore to create an atmosphere in which the singers are not forced to resort to over-emoting in order to convey the nuances of the text to the listener. Cavalli’s voice here emerges as clearly as those of his modern-day interpreters, and he is sounding astonishingly fresh and modern these 340 years after his earthly voice fell silent.
Establishing himself as a presence as vital to Glossa’s catalogue of recordings of vocal music as Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were to the efforts of EMI/Angel and DECCA/London in the 1950s, Raffaele Pe follows his superb performance as the Evangelista on Glossa’s recording of Gaetano Veneziano’s Passione secondo Giovanni [reviewed here] with passionate, poignant accounts of music by Cavalli on Sospiri d’amore. From the first bar of ‘Corone ed honori’ from the 1653 opera Il Ciro, Pe’s wholly organic affinity for this repertory is apparent. Admirably sure of intonation throughout the full range of his music on this disc, from ruby-hued tones in chest resonance to refulgently full-throated falsetto, Pe’s confident handling of Cavalli’s vocal lines yields exquisite results, the immediacy of his singing revealing to the modern listener the communicative power that exerted such a profound influence both on Cavalli’s contemporaries and on future generations of composers. Similarly, ‘Io misero fui Rege’ from Scipione Affricano (1664) receives from Pe a performance of unstinting commitment to music and text, the singer’s exemplary diction, reliant upon clear but unexaggerated elocution of vowels, highlighting the skill with which Cavalli replicated the natural cadences of speech. Whether in the opera house, on the concert stage, or in the recording studio, Pe is an artist who sings to rather than at the listener, transforming every alert observer of a performance into a participant, and the textual clarity, emotional directness, and tonal beauty with which he sings Cavalli’s music on this disc marginalizes the distance between the Seventeenth and Twenty-First Centuries. Pe here reminds the listener that singers whose work equates period-appropriate performance standards with pedantry disserve themselves, composers, poets, and audiences.
Soprano Giulia Semenzato proves in her singing of three of Cavalli’s most inspired arias to be an interpreter of the composer’s music fully worthy of partnering Pe. In her traversals of the markedly different ‘Lassa, che fò’ and ‘Vanne intrepido o mio bene’ from the too-seldom-performed Statira, principessa di Persia (1656—a full century before the birth of Mozart, it is worth noting, despite the rapid pace at which Cavalli’s vocal writing propels opera out of the Seventeenth Century and into the Eighteenth), Semenzato’s phrasing is as well-considered as her tones are focused and confidently projected. The first of the two numbers from Statira exemplifies the skill with which Cavalli could instigate a psychological avalanche without burying a character beneath blizzards of unnecessary notes and emotive wailing. Like her countertenor colleague, Semenzato’s singing exudes comfort with the idiom, and the soprano meets no challenges that overextend her resources. As sung by Semenzato, ‘Alpi gelate’ from Pompeo Magno (1666) is as potent as a soliloquy by any of Shakespeare’s great heroines, the vocal line scaling extraordinary heights of expression. With engagements at many of Europe’s leading opera houses, including La Scala, to her credit, the soprano is a musical storyteller whose artistry belies her youth. Like Pe’s singing, her way with Cavalli’s music illustrates her flair for enlivening music that many singers foolishly dismiss as antiquated.
Pe’s and Semenzato’s accounts of their arias are wonderful, but the duets are the lifeblood of Sospiri d’amore. Even expert singers with seemingly compatible sensibilities do not always prove to be well-matched duet partners. No concerns about the cooperation between Semenzato and Pe and the symbiosis that they achieve deter from enjoyment of this disc. The subtle but animated mingling of voices in ‘O luci belle’ from Eritrea (1652) at once discloses the communicative impact that this duo’s endeavors are capable of deploying. The singers’ contrasted timbres facilitate exploration of the dramatic impetus at the heart of each duet, not least in ‘Qui cadè al tuo piè’ from Orimonte (1650), in which the interaction between the voices propels both thematic development and deepening feelings. Semenzato and Pe create fully human characters, not dulcet-voiced ciphers.
It was as Delio in Spoleto Festival USA’s 2015 modern première production of Cavalli’s 1652 score Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona that Pe confirmed his stature as one of the fledgling millennium’s most thoughtful and accomplished young countertenors, his portrayal of the libidinous young man combining sensitive singing of star quality with heroic machismo—frequently frustrated, albeit—in the best tradition of Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli. Melding their voices like sunlight and stained glass, he and Semenzato conjure in the studio much of the magic in their singing of ‘Né meste più’ that he and soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli created upon the Charleston stage. Cavalli’s unsurpassed gift for enveloping even inimical sentiments in music of unmistakable sensuality elevates ‘L’aspetto feroce’ from Muzio Scevola (1665) and ‘D’Amor non si quereli’ from Ormindo (1644) into the company of the celebrated ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the text and, less certainly, the music of which are now commonly attributed to a 1641 Bologna staging of Benedetto Ferrari’s Il pastor regio. [The operatic Poppea having been first crowned in 1643, some scholars theorize that the opera’s closing duet was composed by Cavalli, but no concrete evidence to substantiate (or refute) this has thus far been discovered.] Certainly, Semenzato and Pe sing both numbers with the flexibility, technical accomplishment, and unabashed opulence that Monteverdi’s—or, in this context, Ferrari’s—Poppea and Nerone demand.
The dialogue for Clori and Lidio from L’Egisto (1643), ‘Hor che l’Aurora,’ is a splendid example of a form that Cavalli perfected, fusing the allegorical discourses among archetypes of the sort found more than a half-century later in Händel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno with starkly real circumstances of people of flesh and blood. The gap separating Cavalli’s Clori and Lidio from Mozart’s Pamina and Tamino, Beethoven’s Leonore and Florestan, Verdi’s Aida and Radamès, Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Siegfried, and Puccini’s Minnie and Johnson is startlingly narrow, the later composers having crafted their own individual styles of giving life to characters’ high-stakes conversations from the raw materials of Cavalli’s dialogues. Semenzato and Pe enact the dialogue for Clori and Lidio with intelligently-phrased intensity that uncannily preserves and transcends the formality of the music’s construction. Their singing of ‘Io chiudo nel core’ from Il rapimento di Elena (1659) indeed seems to emanate directly from the hearts of both artists, the concentrated passion of their singing surpassed only by its unspoiled beauty. The slightly mysterious aura of Ormindo’s ‘Sì, sì, che questa notte’ is an ideal setting for Semenzato’s and Pe’s understated brilliance: using Cavalli’s pointed melodic lines as their canvas, they spread the colors of their voices over a ravishing musical panorama of the jagged, jarring topography of humanity.
In today’s complicated, sometimes disheartening Classical recording industry, a disc’s success often depends upon its ability to justify its existence. In these performances by Giulia Semenzato and Raffaele Pe, any piece on Sospiri d’amore can be cited as an irrefutable raison d’être for this absorbing disc, but the prevailing triumph of Sospiri d’amore is the wondrous, often deeply moving synergy among singers, musicians, and music that, owing to performances of this quality, is as alive today as when it was first performed more than three centuries ago.