07 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Gioseffo Zamponi – ULISSE ALL’ISOLA DI CIRCE (F. Zanasi, C. Scheen, M. Flores, D. Visse, F. Schofrin, F. Guimarães, Z. Wilder, M. Bellotto, S. Foresti; Ricercar RIC 342)

CD REVIEW: Gioseffo Zamponi - ULISSE ALL'ISOLA DI CIRCE (Ricercar RIC 342)

GIOSEFFO ZAMPONI (circa 1615 – 1662): Ulisse all’isola di CirceFurio Zanasi (Ulisse), Céline Scheen (Circe), Sergio Foresti (Nettuno), Fernando Guimarães (Euriloco, Tritone secondo, Statua prima, Marte), Zachary Wilder (Mercurio, Apollo), Mariana Flores (Venere), Dominique Visse (Argesta), Fabián Schofrin (Satiro), Matteo Bellotto (Giove), Caroline Weynants (Lisetta, Pallade), Alice Foccroulle (Dorinda), Benoît Giaux (Tritone primo), Philippe Favette (Statua seconda); Chœur de chambre de Namur; Clematis; Leonardo García Alarcón, conductor [Recorded in the Salle philharmonique de Liège, Belgium, in February 2012; Ricercar RIC 342; 2CD, 138:11; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

For composers active in the century of opera’s infancy, aristocratic weddings presented extraordinary opportunities of lavish spectacles, almost limitless budgets, and captive audiences of deep-pocketed potential employers and benefactors. There are in the history of opera in the Seventeenth Century countless instances of the marriages of forgotten nobles inspiring forgotten operas by half-remembered composers. When the nuptials of Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, were celebrated in the Spanish Netherlands in 1650, the occasion was marked in Brussels by the première of a new opera by Gioseffo Zamponi, a composer whose life and career are now obscured by the impersonal ignorance of time. Likely born in Rome sometime before 1619 [competing theories date his birth to circa 1600, 1610, and 1615], Zamponi entered the service of Archduke Wilhelm Leopold, the Hapsburg Governor of the Spanish Netherlands and son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, in 1648, following a tenure at the archiepiscopal court of Cardinal Pietro Maria Borghese in Rome. Seemingly a genuinely appreciative patron of the arts, Wilhelm Leopold assembled a near-legendary coven of renowned artists at his court in Brussels, and the caliber of his colleagues in the visual arts suggests that Zamponi’s reputation among his contemporaries must have been exalted. Despite the lack of reliable information about his achievements as an artist, it is certain that it was Zamponi’s Ulisse all’isola di Circe that introduced Brussels to Italian opera, then still a novelty, and that the opera’s first performance was a success considerable enough to prompt a second performance, as well as a further pair of performances five years later to honor the Swedish Queen Christina Alexandra’s visit to Brussels. Solely for inaugurating operatic traditions in Brussels, where they remain strong 364 years later, Zamponi deserves to be remembered, but this recording of his pioneering Ulisse all’isola di Circe reveals that he and his work are far more than historical curiosities: this is a score that earns its composer a place of honor among the geniuses of his time and one that has more to offer the modern listener than many similar scores that have been convincingly rehabilitated in the Twenty-First Century.

Musically, Ulisse all’isola di Circe replicates the Venetian models of Zamponi’s generation, its stylistic kinship with the operas of Cavalli manifested both in the alteration of recitative with mellifluously melodic arioso and the introduction of comedic characters into an otherwise serious mythological epic. Though Zamponi’s adherence to the traditions of Venetian opera as he knew it is marked, the formulaic elements of Ulisse all’isola di Circe are remarkably unobtrusive, and the listener for whom Seventeenth-Century opera in general is hard going can rejoice in the complete lack of doldrums throughout the opera’s duration. The breadth of Zamponi’s skills as a musical dramatist is evident, but much of the credit for the sheer excitement of this recording must be given to the team of performers who invest such lavish gifts in this venture. Opera is a lurid genre of base emotions and sordid passions, after all, and virtually any composer might well have colluded and conspired to enjoy the advocacy of musicians as gifted and stylistically aware as those of Cappella Mediterranea, Clematis, and Argentine conductor Leonardo García Alarcón. It was Maestro García Alarcón who rediscovered Ulisse all’isola di Circe and supervised its introduction to the Twenty-First Century in 2006, and his return to the score—with many of the same soloists, members of Cappella Mediterranea—in 2012 produced this recording, superbly engineered in a flattering acoustic by Ricercar. As displayed by the singing of sopranos Caroline Weynants and Alice Foccroulle, baritone Benoît Giaux, and bass Philippe Favette in solo rôles, the musical standards of the Chœur de chambre de Namur are exceptionally high, and each of these singers contributes winningly to the performance. Guided by concertmaster Stéphane de Failly, the execution of Zamponi’s score by the virtuosi of Clematis is nothing short of perfection. The musicians’ mastery of ferociously difficult period instruments is extraordinary, but their inalienable technical wizardry never blunts the sharp edges of Zamponi’s spiky music. As in many scores of its time, the manuscript leaves much in terms of instrumentation to the imagination, and Maestro García Alarcón fills in the blanks with an orchestral complement that nods to what is known of the instrumental forces of contemporary Venetian theatres, augmented by winds and percussion appropriate to a celebratory event at a Hapsburg court. The wind playing is a particular glory of this performance, but Maestro García Alarcón’s foremost achievement is his realization of the continuo. Provided by Lionel Desmeules on organ and spinet, Ariel Rychter on gut-stringed harpsichord and organ, Quito Gato and Thomas Dunford on theorbo and guitar, Marie Bournisien on harp, Margaux Blanchard on bass viol, and François Joubert-Caillet on bass viol and lira, the continuo is the throbbing heart of this performance, the life force that gives the performance thrust and, honoring the roots of its definition as few groups of musicians have managed to do, continuity.

At the center of a superb cast is the magnificent countertenor Dominique Visse, an artist whose significance to Early Music parallels that of Callas to bel canto. His histrionic powers are such that, even in the context of an audio recording, the broadest comic antics can disclose an intensely touching vulnerability, and his talents as a singing actor are at their zenith in this performance of Ulisse all’isola di Circe. The voice was never a conventionally lovely instrument, but there is a strange beauty in virtually every note that he sings. In his performance as Argesta, the full panoply of Mr. Visse’s magic is unleashed. His delivery of zinging lines like ‘Vol un amante vigoroso e altiero / E meglio in un Porchetto’ (‘She seeks a vigorous, heady lover / A piglet would do better’) is great fun, and the irony of his singing of Argesta’s monologue at the start of Act Two, ‘Non è maggior tormento,’ admits both humor and poignancy. In ‘Destin magiche note,’ the abyss of hell itself resounds in Mr. Visse’s voice. A revival of the Baroque practice of male singers impersonating female characters has taken hold in recent years, but no one manages it more artfully than Mr. Visse: indeed, it is difficult to imagine singers in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries proving more effective in a rôle like Argesta. Not every pitch is perfect, not every tone falls graciously upon the ears, but every note and every word issue from the imagination of an uncommonly perceptive artist.

Countertenor Fabián Schofrin is a worthy colleague for Mr. Visse, and his performance of Satiro’s ‘Huom superbo’ at the close of Act One is as alert, pointed, and musical as could be desired. Bass Matteo Bellotto is an aptly grandiose presence as Giove in ‘Dal mio Trono,’ his phrasing conveying the authority that he cannot command solely on vocal terms. More baritone than bass in vocal colorations, Sergio Foresti nonetheless launches the opera powerfully as Nettuno, his voicing of ‘O voi del vasto Oceano’ shaped by excellent diction and firm, focused tone maintained across the full range of his music.

Singing the rôles of Euriloco, Marte, the Tritone secondo, and the Statua prima, tenor Fernando Guimarães cleverly differentiates his performances with subtle vocal inflections. What is consistent is the freshness of his approach and the resonant musicality of his singing. In Euriloco’s exchanges with Ulisse, especially ‘Già spirano si lieti’ in Act Three, he combines thoughtful dramatic involvement with attractive vocalism, the spontaneity of his performance suggesting that he is genuinely responding to his colleagues’ utterances. In the music for Apollo and Mercurio, the voice of tenor Zachary Wilder surges through the performance like lava. The melting beauty of his singing floods every scene in which he appears, culminating in an interview with Venere in the penultimate scene of Act Two—‘Ancor non resti’—that pulses with surprisingly modern sensibilities. His performance of the beautiful ‘Scender del ciel viddi io’ is exquisite, the line caressed with an unforced grasp of these first flowerings of bel canto, and the contrasting poise and emotional directness of his scenes with Ulisse and Venere in Act Three are captivating. The timbres of Mr. Guimarães and Mr. Wilder are sufficiently dissimilar to prevent confusion over which gentleman is singing, but their levels of accomplishment in Zamponi’s music are well matched. If only similar equality could be heard in performances of Pedrillo and Belmonte, Flavio and Pollione, Ruiz and Manrico, and Loge and Mime!

Soprano Mariana Flores announces in her first scene, the fantastic ‘E pur sei giunto al fine,’ that Venere is a potent participant in the drama and that the singer portraying her is a compelling exponent of Zamponi’s musical idiom. In Venere’s scene with Circe in Act Two, Ms. Flores gives a stirring account of ‘Da lo strale d’Amor fugga chi può,’ and in the subsequent scene with Mercurio her singing fumes with defiance and indignation. Dramatically, Ms. Flores argues and acquiesces with great integrity and absolute stylistic adroitness. Again, though, it is the unaffected pulchritude of the singing that impresses most, and Ms. Flores’s voice is a world-class instrument only just beginning to unlock its potential.

The title couple, Ulisse and Circe, are archetypes of the errant hero and ruinous temptress that have persisted throughout the four-century progress of opera, but Zamponi’s gifts for sensitive musical portraiture ensure that they are considerably more than an Early-Music Tannhäuser and Venus. As sung by baritone Furio Zanasi, Ulisse is a domineering but amiable fellow who can hardly be faulted for falling victim to the beauty of a Circe as alluring as Céline Scheen. The element of toughness in Ms. Scheen’s performance is wonderfully compatible with the rugged masculinity of Mr. Zanasi’s suave but swashbuckling Ulisse. Mr. Zanasi establishes the nuances of Ulisse’s character immediately in ‘Il mondo non ha più fieri terrori,’ which he voices expansively, and the insinuating indecision of his singing of ‘Credo sì, o no’ is both intelligent and seemingly artless. He and Ms. Scheen unite in a deliciously sensual account of ‘Languisco; Mi moro,’ a duet that rivals the celebrated ‘Pur ti miro’ in its depiction of languorous sexuality. In both their scenes with one another and those with other characters, Mr. Zanasi and Ms. Scheen sing with passion and precision, and their performances are exhibitions of technical prowess that extends to every niche of period-appropriate stylishness without ever seeming confined by conscious effort. Mr. Zanasi, one of the finest and most-recorded luminaries of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century opera here gives one of his best performances, and Ms. Scheen matches him point for point, tone for ravishing tone.

Far too many performances of ‘early’ operas are tepid affairs in which the singers’ singing and musicians’ playing are muted by their noses being lodged in books lest they commit the perceived-to-be-unpardonable sin of doing something that has not been deemed historically accurate. Whether the score is by Zamponi or Zandonai, taking the notes on the page at face value and singing or playing them full-on, without compromising musicality in pursuit of elusive authenticity, is never out of style, and every note on these discs confirms it. It is apparent in this recording of Ulisse all’isola di Circe that Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea view a work like Zamponi’s not as a vintage puzzle with missing pieces that must be replaced with carefully-fabricated replicas but as a spectacular chandelier that merely needs to be wired for electricity. Switch on this performance of Ulisse all’isola di Circe, and every musical light dazzles. It is not an old opera given new life: it is a fresh current in the spring of invention that has gushed uninterrupted since words and music first bathed together.