24 January 2014

CD REVIEW: Alessandro Scarlatti – CARLO, RE D’ALEMAGNA (R. Basso, R. Invernizzi, M. de Liso, M. Beate Kielland, C. Allemano, J. M. Lo Monaco D. Pinti, R. Abbondanza; agOgique AGO015)

Alessandro Scarlatti - CARLO, RE D'ALEMAGNA (agOgique AGO015)

ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725): Carlo, Re d’Alemagna (Naples, 1716) – R. Basso (Lotario), R. Invernizzi (Giuditta), M. de Liso (Gildippe), M. Beate Kielland (Adalgiso), C. Allemano (Berardo), J. M. Lo Monaco (Asprando), D. Pinti (Armilla), R. Abbondanza (Bleso); Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Fabio Biondi [Recorded in Stavanger Konserthus, Bjergsted, Stavanger, Norway, 30 November – 4 December 2009; 3CD, 169:20; agOgique AGO015; Available from fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

During four decades of creative activity spanning the turn of the 18th Century, Alessandro Scarlatti composed dozens of operas—an impressive but hardly extraordinary (or, among composers of his generation, unusual) prodigality.  What is remarkable, however, is that, unlike the works of most of his contemporaries, a number of Scarlatti’s operas survive in more or less complete form, enabling greater comprehensions both of the development of Scarlatti’s compositional style and of the tremendous significance of his music in the transition from the 17th-Century models of Cavalli and his disciples to the High Baroque forms epitomized to 21st-Century observers by the operas of Händel and Vivaldi.  With ‘O cessate di piagarmi’ from his 1683 opera Il Pompeo, Scarlatti gained a permanent place in the lives of voice students, regardless of any enthusiasm for Baroque music, but only his Griselda managed to maintain a small presence into the 21st Century, thanks first to the unlikely but beautifully stylish espousal of Mirella Freni and later to a justifiably acclaimed touring production and recording conducted by René Jacobs.  A 1956 performance at La Piccola Scala with Victoria de los Ángeles and Giulietta Simonato, a London performance in 1957 with the young Dame Joan Sutherland, and a French radio concert in 1967 featuring Janine Micheau were insufficient to inspire more than a half-dozen performances of Il Mitridate Eupatore, generally acknowledged as Scarlatti’s operatic masterpiece, in the wake of the global revival of interest in Baroque repertory.  Premièred at Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo in January 1716 with the celebrated Margherita Durastanti as Giuditta and Senesino as Lotario, Carlo, Re d’Alemagna—its composer’s seventy-ninth opera—is an intriguing ‘hybrid’ work typical of Neapolitan opera in the early 18th Century, serious and comic elements blended in a semiseria format that would remain popular in Naples well into the 19th Century.  The musicologist Paul Henry Lang wrote in Music in Western Civilization that opera in its modern form began with Scarlatti: this is perhaps something of a generalization, but there are in Carlo, Re d’Alemagna all of the musical paving stones with which the road to Le nozze di Figaro, Tancredi, Falstaff, and La fanciulla del West was painstakingly constructed.

A decade ago, a particular highlight of the 2003 Festival Scarlatti di Palermo was a concert performance of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante and several of the singers who also participated in the 2009 performance by Maestro Biondi and the Stavanger Symphony that was given in conjunction with the making of this studio recording.  There can be no doubting Maestro Biondi’s dedication to Carlo, Re d’Alemagna, then, but the performance preserved on this recording confirms that his mastery of Scarlatti’s unique idiom is absolute.  The compositional style of each truly important composer has characteristics that set his music apart, and Maestro Biondi’s comprehension of the defining qualities in Scarlatti’s music—concerted lyricism, sophisticated management of chromatic harmonies, and dramatically effective setting of text even in complex bravura or contrapuntal passages—is apparent in every moment of this performance.  Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is not without challenges for the conductor: it is an opera in which the title character inspires all of the conspiracies that unfold in the course of the action without singing a note, after all.  The flexibility with which Maestro Biondi manages the transitions among scenes, maintaining cumulative momentum without damaging each scene’s unique structure, is indicative of an exceptional degree of comfort with Scarlatti’s music.  Maestro Biondi’s complete immersion in the musical idioms of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is complemented by the remarkable affinity for Scarlatti’s music displayed by the players of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, over whose excursions into Baroque repertory Maestro Biondi has presided since 2006.  Founded in 1938 under the auspices of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, SSO’s successive generations of first-rank players have built a legacy of superb musicianship and versatility, and these qualities contribute to playing of Scarlatti’s score that rivals the best work of Early Music specialist ensembles.  Every detail of Scarlatti’s orchestration is aired with expert timing and perfect intonation, and the SSO’s playing falls victim to none of the preciousness or over-articulation that afflict many performances of Baroque music.  Each section of the orchestra is given music of formidable technical difficulty, and the SSO players respond with unfettered virtuosity.  With such vibrant playing combined with ideal conducting, the stage is set for a performance that unearths for 21st-Century listeners a hidden treasure of 18th-Century opera.

Far too many operatic performances in the past quarter-century have neglected the seemingly obvious fact that, in opera, singing is the most important factor in the success of a performance.  A wonderfully-played ‘Rhine Journey’ is splendid, but a Götterdämmerung with a poor Brünnhilde or Siegfried makes for an unbearably long evening.  With their action typically conveyed in secco recitative and pauses for emotive commentary in da capo arias, Baroque operas can also be dull affairs if indifferently performed, and one of the most immediately noticeable achievements of this recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is that the minutes dart by without even the slightest suggestion of heaviness or boredom.  This is thanks, in part, to the prevalence of Italian singers in the cast, a boon in Italian opera that is only rarely encountered now in a score of any vintage.  In fact, this performance brings together as satisfactory a cast as could be assembled today for any opera.  Contralto Damiana Pinti and bass Roberto Abbondanza make a wonderfully appealing couple as the buffo lovers.  As Armilla, Giuditta’s maidservant, Ms. Pinti sings richly, using the text imaginatively and with humor that never descends into farce.  Bleso, Lotario’s master of arms, is charmingly sung by Mr. Abbondanza, who meets every challenge of Scarlatti’s music without indulging in mugging in the pursuit of comedy.  Armilla’s only aria, ‘Consoliamoci o signora,’ is very brief but is delivered by Ms. Pinti with brilliance.  Bleso, too, has only one aria, ‘Con le zitelle,’ which Mr. Abbondanza sings winningly, but Scarlatti gave these characters four intriguing duets in which to leave their marks on the drama.  Responding to one another with perfect timing and shared musicality, Ms. Pinti and Mr. Abbondanza sparkle in each duet, especially the lilting ‘Senti, Bleso caro / Parla, Armilla cara’ that ends Act Two and ‘Lo vedrem’ in Act Three.

Mezzo-soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco, a true connoisseur’s artist in Baroque repertory, brings the best of her formidable technique and plush vocalism to her performance as Asprando.  From her first aria, ‘Il destin ver noi clemente,’ Ms. Lo Monaco displays complete mastery of Scarlatti’s music, taking every roulade in stride.  Asprando’s arias in Act Two, ‘Già il mio cor’ and ‘Per te ho in seno un cor,’ are commandingly sung, and Ms. Lo Monaco’s dramatic instincts are appreciably at play in every scene in which the treacherous Asprando appears.  Tenor Carlo Allemano is also a skilled performer of Baroque music, and his Berardo is a prominent presence throughout the performance.  Each of Berardo’s three arias—‘Tutta fede ho l’alma in petto’ and ‘Il giglio nel prato’ in Act One and ‘Par che godo’ in Act Three—draws from Mr. Allemano an impressive display of singing.  Occasionally, Scarlatti’s bravura demands come close to overwhelming Mr. Allemano, but he copes manfully, putting bouts of effort to insightful dramatic use and phrasing so artfully that his slightly dry timbre shimmers in moments of repose.

Evenly matched in terms of technical acumen and vocal prowess are mezzo-sopranos Marina de Liso and Marianne Beate Kielland—the sole non-Italian in the cast, a fact that could never be discerned from her idiomatic diction—in the rôles of the thwarted lovers Gildippe and Adalgiso.  Considering her importance to the drama, Gildippe has surprisingly little to do, with only single, brief arias in Acts One and Three, but her aria ‘La barbara mia sorte’ in Act Two is one of the musical and dramatic climaxes of the opera.  Ms. de Liso sings excellently throughout the performance, but her singing of ‘La barbara mia sorte’ is stunning, the bitterness of Gildippe’s contemplation of her lot palpably conveyed.  Ms. Kielland’s Adalgiso is an apt partner, the singer’s fiery performance perfectly complementing Ms. de Liso’s Gildippe.  The quality of his music for Adalgiso leaves no doubt that the prince’s situation engaged Scarlatti’s imagination: among several fine arias, ‘Labri cari’ in Act One and ‘Se la bella tortorella’ in Act Two are fantastic examples of the composer’s art at its finest, and Ms. Kielland’s singing reveals every glimmering nuance of Scarlatti’s genius.  It also gets at the heart of the character in a way that elucidates Scarlatti’s gifts as a dramatist.  Both Ms. de Liso and Ms. Kielland sing with indomitable technical skill and beguiling dramatic involvement, striking sparks in their recitatives.

The dowager empress Giuditta is sung by soprano Roberta Invernizzi, one of the leading ladies of the historically-informed Baroque practice movement.  Though she has given innumerable wonderful performances and participated in scores of standard-setting recordings, Ms. Invernizzi finds in Giuditta a rôle that seemingly captivates and inspires her to singing that surpasses even her own best work.  Giuditta is a woman whose honor is imperiled in the midst of a political power struggle, and beginning with her first aria in Act One—‘Illustre il sangue mio’—Ms. Invernizzi sings with impeccable style and the emotional intensity that a gifted singing actress might devote to Lulu or Tosca.  Ms. Invernizzi’s gift for delving into the dramatic complexities of a rôle while maintaining extraordinary fidelity to the vocal lines produces stirring accounts of all of Giuditta’s arias, not least ‘Ti sovvenga’ in Act One and ‘L’innocenza in te vegg’io’ in Act Two.  ‘Sono in mar con ria procella’ is a typically demanding ‘simile’ aria of the type so beloved by Baroque composers, and Ms. Invernizzi delivers the coloratura astoundingly and consistently sounds dignified and meltingly feminine.  The integrity of Ms. Invernizzi’s singing leaves no doubt that Giuditta is innocent of the indiscretions of which she is accused.  The delicacy with which Ms. Invernizzi deploys her silvery voice enables subtle inflections of even the most extroverted passages of Giuditta’s music.  Many singers are content merely to sing a rôle: Ms. Invernizzi embodies Giuditta completely and does so with unstinting intelligence, infusing her performance with power that never overextends her voice.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Carlo, still a boy, is never heard as it is unlikely that he could have held his own—at any age—against the Lotario of contralto Romina Basso.  From her first entrance with the aria ‘Del ciel su i giri,’ Ms. Basso brings easy grandeur to her performance, the darkness of her timbre lending a very credible suggestion of masculinity to her portrayal of Lotario.  Scarlatti gave two of the score’s most remarkable arias—‘Aure voi’ at the start of Act Two and ‘Riede quest’alma in calma’ in Act Three—to Lotario, and Ms. Basso sings both numbers sublimely.  Any listener who approaches this recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna with any doubt about Ms. Basso’s place among the ranks of the world’s best mezzo-sopranos should rejoice in having those questions answered by her radiant, virtuosic singing in this performance.  To the aria ‘Tiranno, sì, sarò’ in Act Three she brings blistering vitriol and biting irony, unleashing her imposing technique in a display of pyrotechnics that perfectly conveys Lotario’s pride and indignation.  Like Ms. Invernizzi, Ms. Basso does not build her performance solely from notes: she digs deeply into the text, which she sings with diction so natural that even the most demanding bravura passages retain the cadence of speech, and she finds in Lotario’s character both duplicity and nobility.  What evil there is in Ms. Basso’s Lotario is merely a reflection of the circumstances in which he finds himself.  As has already been suggested, however, the proof in the operatic pudding must ultimately be the singing, and such singing as Ms. Basso provides in this performance produces a most delectable dish indeed.

The 350th anniversary of Alessandro Scarlatti’s birth came and went in 2010 with little fanfare; certainly with nothing like the enthusiasm and global prominence with which the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner were celebrated in 2013.  The significance of Verdi and Wagner in the history of opera is undisputed, but how is the neglect of Scarlatti, the composer with whom at least one musicologist believed that opera in its modern form began, explained?  There is no accounting for taste, it is said with regrettable veracity, but the best arguments for revivals of interest in music by overlooked composers are made by great performances.  This recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna unmistakably proclaims that Scarlatti’s score is no less gripping now than when it was first heard 298 years ago.  This is not a performance that treats the score like a relic that must be protected beneath glass and lead: guided by Fabio Biondi and recorded by agOgique in warmly ambient sound, the cast assembled for this account of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna collectively offer the listener a performance of beauty, passion, and sincerity and a reintroduction to the operatic endeavors of a composer whose influence far outlived his popularity.