20 June 2015

CD REVIEW: Francesco Gasparini – IL BAJAZET (L. De Lisi, F. Mineccia, G. Bridelli, E. Gubańska, A. Giovannini, B. Mazzucato, R. Pè, G. Cinciripi; Glossa GCD 923504)

CD REVIEW: Francesco Gasparini - IL BAJAZET (Glossa GCD 923504)FRANCESCO GASPARINI (1661 – 1727): Il BajazetLeonardo De Lisi (Bajazet), Filippo Mineccia (Tamerlano), Giuseppina Bridelli (Asteria), Ewa Gubańska (Irene), Antonio Giovannini (Andronico), Benedetta Mazzucato (Clearco), Raffaele Pè (Leone), Giorgia Cinciripi (Zaida); Auser Musici; Carlo Ipata, conductor [Recorded in Chiesa del Crocifisso, Barga, Italy, 29 June – 6 July 2014; Glossa GCD 923504; 3 CDs, 205:08; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

Perhaps the first question that will occur to those who encounter this recording of Il Bajazet in their local music shops—such things still exist in some fortunate corners of our world—or in the ether of digital media will be, ‘Who was Francesco Gasparini?’ Like many of the composers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries whose names gradually disappeared among footnotes in musicological texts, Gasparini exerted considerable influence on musical life in and beyond northern Italy in the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Born in Tuscany in 1661, he is known to have studied in Rome with the acknowledged masters Arcangelo Corelli and Bernardo Pasquini, and the reach of his music extended to Britain and German-speaking environs, where Johann Sebastian Bach knew and learned from his liturgical works. In addition to having taught the younger composers Benedetto Marcello, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Domenico Scarlatti, in his rôle as maestro di musica at the famed Ospedale della Pietà in Venice he was responsible for the hiring of a colorful young would-be prelate, Antonio Vivaldi. A survey of Gasparini’s operas, the scores of a number of which are not known to have survived unto the present day, reveals that his reputation was sufficient to secure performances of his music in all of the important operatic centers of Italy and in the music-loving capitals Dresden and Vienna. Premièred in Reggio Emilia in 1719, the composer’s second setting of Agostino Piovene’s and Ippolito Zanelli’s impassioned treatment of the conflict between the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I and the infamous Timur the Lame—too much of Gasparini’s first and third settings, respectively first performed in Venice in 1711 and 1723, is lost to permit credible reconstitution of the scores—reveals a compositional voice very different from but meritorious of comparison to that of Georg Friedrich Händel, whose familiarity with Gasparini’s settings of Il Bajazet can be sensed in virtually page of his own Tamerlano, the libretto for which was in part adapted by Nicola Francesco Haym from Piovene’s libretto. Not unlike the manner in which Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia eclipsed Paisiello’s earlier setting of the Beaumarchais-inspired tale and the sage of Pesaro’s own Otello suffered the same fate after the début of Verdi’s version of the Shakespeare epic, the survival of even a very fine score in direct competition with a masterwork like Händel’s Tamerlano is unlikely at best. Recorded in conjunction with a staged production mounted in Barga's Teatro dei Differenti in July 2014, likely the opera’s first since the opening quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Glossa’s performance of Il Bajazet is a sparkling introduction to a score richly deserving of revival. This, however, is no mere revival: it is a glorious return worthy of the legendary figures Gasparini’s music brings to life.

Beginning with a bustling account of a Sinfonia borrowed from Gasparini's opera Ambleto, premièred in Venice in January 1706, performed in London in 1712, and thought to have been the first operatic setting of the story of Hamlet (though not based on Shakespeare's play), the musical trailblazers of Auser Musici and their leader Carlo Ipata guide the listener on an edge-of-the-seat journey through the opera’s emotionally-charged drama. Guided by the continuo playing of harpsichordist Alessandra Artifoni and theorbist Giovanni Bellini, the Auser Musici musicians provide performances of their parts that accompany, support, and interact with the singers, the wind players carefully matching the vocalists’ phrasing and the strings’ sparing use of vibrato highlighting the many felicities of Gasparini’s prodigious chromatic harmonies. Ipata’s leadership exhibits a thorough understanding both of Gasparini’s unique idiom and of his stylistic kinship with Händel and his northern Italian contemporaries. This is not pedantic conducting, however: in Ipata’s execution of every page of the score, there is the sense of a performance playing out, the drama felt as keenly by the conductor as by the cast. The real marvel of this performance is the seamless naturalness with which Ipata and Auser Musici elucidate every intricacy of Gasparini’s music on scales both broad and intimate. When music like Gasparini’s is the foundation upon which every subsequent generation of composers of Italian opera built, why is this organic authenticity of approach missing from so many performances of well-known repertory from Donizetti to Dallapiccola?

As Zaida, soprano Giorgia Cinciripi has only recitative and a single aria in which to assert her musical and dramatic strengths, and she captivates with every note of her part. Slight shrillness is mitigated by a vivid dramatic personality that propels the character to the center of every scene in which she appears. Zaida’s lone aria, ‘Solo i vaghi, i lusinghieri, i sereni, i bei pensieri sono i fior di verde età’ in Act Three, is sung by Cinciripi with alluring femininity and stylish finesse. Hers is a performance that impresses despite its relative brevity.

The sublimely beautiful voice of countertenor Raffaele Pè is too little heard as Leone in Il Bajazet, but he grasps every bar of his part with unsparing dramatic sensitivity that mines every kernel of substance from his music. In his Act One aria, ‘Non cangiasi per poco amor di salde tempre, no,’ Pè sings commandingly, meeting every bravura demand of the music with panache and differentiating repetitions to telling dramatic effect. An incendiary force in recitative throughout the performance, he shapes the Act Two aria ‘Rondinella che si vede tolto il nido’ with the aural grace of a sculptor handling Carrara marble. The loveliest of Gasparini’s music for Leone is the Act Three aria ‘Dolce lampo di speme gradita,’ a piece that Pè finesses with dulcet, perfectly-focused tone and delicate but well-defined handling of the words. The immediacy of Pè’s characterization of the flinty Leone leaps from the discs, but the evenness of his singing discloses unexpected depths of serenity amidst the waves of steely resolve. Which label will now provide this phenomenal young singer with the opportunity to complement his Leone with a recording of Händel’s Andronico?

Mezzo-soprano Benedetta Mazzucato creates a multi-faceted Clearco whose motives never seem as straightforward as the sentiments of his arias suggest. In Act One, Mazzucato sings the aria ‘Dolce è l'amar ma quel poter regnar’ elegantly, injecting subtle inflections of irony into her quick-witted use of text. The imagery of the aria ‘La farfaletta se al primo lume’ is vividly drawn by the singer’s intelligent manipulations of the colorations of vowel sounds. In fact, there is often more textual acuity than vocal opulence in Mazzucato’s singing, but she is a consummate professional who does not force the voice beyond the boundaries of comfort. The aria ‘Su gl'occhi del mio bene le pene del morir’ in Act Two is truly performed, not just sung, the emotional profile of the music sharply etched. ‘Morte non è agli amanti ambi insieme morir’ in Act Three is delivered with the acuity of a great actress of the Broadway stage. Mazzucato makes Clearco a crucial participant in the drama of Il Bajazet, and her negotiations on her own terms of Gasparini’s musical requirements produce a very satisfying portrayal.

The incisive vocalism and effervescent timbre of platinum-voiced countertenor Antonio Giovannini create an Andronico who woos and wages war with equal propensities but is also a proud, suitably aristocratic prince to the life. He buzzes through recitatives with the stinging crispness of an agitated hornet, the voice shimmering and the characterization displaying a different ‘face’ depending upon with whom Andronico is conversing. In his first aria in Act One, ‘Solea dir all'Idol mio,’ Giovannini sings beguilingly, the young prince’s affection for Asteria coursing through his poetic handling of the melodic line. Then, the singer’s assured performance of ‘Infedele, ingannator, questo mio cor mai non sarà’ sizzles with indignation expressed in spot-on bravura singing. To the aria ‘Con dolci prieghi e pianti’ in Act Two he devotes a wonderful display of concerted expressivity, the prayers and tears invoked by the text audible in the voice. The nobility of ‘No, che del tuo gran cor io sono l'offensor’ is also splendidly served by Giovannini’s traversal, and he sings ‘No, no, non discende no, sì fiero e sì crudel un fulmine dal ciel’ in Act Three with technical and dramatic mastery. Virtually every performance that Giovannini has sung on disc is fantastic, but his portrait of Andronico in Il Bajazet is representative of his best work to date.

The initially diffident but justifiably magisterial Irene receives from mezzo-soprano Ewa Gubańska an appealingly concrete impersonation that ignores none of this complex lady’s idiosyncrasies. Formally introducing Irene in the Act One aria ‘Vieni, vola, e sul mio viso,’ Gubańska indeed invites the listener to come and witness what she can accomplish in a score like Gasparini’s. Allying an impressive bravura technique with centered, amethyst-hued tone, she reaches exalted heights of emotional directness in the aria ‘La violetta, va timidetta, dove la rosa, troppo orgogliosa,’ the timbre evoking the floral allusions. Irene’s arias in Act Two, ‘Ti sento, sì, ti sento ancor nel tradimento’ and ‘No, no: il candor della tua fè quel non è che mi tradì’ are effectively contrasted by both composer and singer, the latter infusing her singing with flashes of warmth in moments of tension. Gubańska leads her colleagues in making the recitatives in this performance genuine conflicts and conversations rather than strings of notes connecting one aria with the next, and this involvement is extended in her solo numbers, as well. The first of her arias in Act Three, ‘Non è si fido al nido dell'usignolo il volo,’ is dispatched with absorbing sincerity. Gubańska’s artistry soars in Irene’s final aria, ‘Un'aura placida, e lusinghiera dopo le pene a recar viene,’ a number that the mezzo-soprano interprets with histrionic simplicity but technical alchemy. Especially in recitative, Gubańska’s singing discloses a gift for turning leaden text into dramatic gold, and a few momentary defects in her vocalism, mostly resulting from pushing the voice in ornamentation, are of little cumulative consequence.

Singing Asteria, Bajazet’s sweet-spirited but ultimately strong-willed daughter who is a pawn in intrigues both amorous and political, mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli offsets a few uncertain passages with a depiction of contrasting resilience and refinement. Loved by Tamerlano, in love with Andronico, and sworn to filial fealty to Bajazet, Asteria is essentially a property in machismo maneuvering. In many ways, however, Gasparini’s Asteria is a less accepting character than Händel’s incarnation though also less interesting. Bridelli clearly means to craft an intriguing study of a lady wearied by perennially being the damsel in distress. Starting with ‘Parti sì: no: ferma, ascolta’ in Act One, she uses each of Asteria’s arias as an unique weapon in the character’s battle against tyranny and the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. The swarms of fury that she unleashes in ‘Vendetta, sì, farò contro un ingrato cor’ are startling, but in Act Two Bridelli gradually transforms the character into one of three-dimensional relativity, aided by Gasparini’s carefully-wrought music. She employs both the aria ‘Vanne alla belle Irene’ and Asteria’s lines in the terzetto with Bajazet and Tamerlano, ‘Voglio strage,’ as unmistakably personal statements of survival and self-worth. The equivalent of Gasparini’s aria ‘Cor di padre e cor d'amante’ ends Act Two of Händel’s Tamerlano, in which context it is the opera’s climax. The aria is also a high peak in Gasparini’s range, and Bridelli sings it persuasively, her delineation of Asteria’s conflicting loyalties touching the heart. Hers is not unblemished singing. The vocal registers are not consistently integrated, and there are rough patches in the voice in which tonal production seems to be achieved more by will power than by proper technique. These are problems that are easily corrected, however, and Bridelli is clearly a singer dedicated to excelling. In truth, she excels in this performance: in her least-confident moments, she is a memorable, demonstrative Asteria.

The court of the Tamerlano portrayed by countertenor Filippo Mineccia was surely one of unrestrained hedonism. Originated by the castrato Antonio Maria Bernacchi, who became de facto primo uomo in London after Senesino's return to Italy, creating for Händel the title rôle in Lotario and Arsace in Partenope, Gasparini’s Tamerlano is a character almost as oily as Händel’s, and Mineccia revels in slinking through the performance with smarmy sexiness, vocal smirks and innuendos always at the ready. Still, the countertenor’s smoldering-embers timbre lends him almost indecent credibility as a lover. Few singers of any Fach are as successful at viscerally conveying arousal and libidinous appetite as Mineccia is in this performance. In Act One, he phrases the aria ‘Co' sguardi la mia bella’ with the lithe surety of a dancer, and the restrained exuberance of his singing of ‘Se la gloria ai tuoi bei lumi’ is captivating. Act Two is an exercise of Tamerlano’s skills for deceptive love-making, the arias ‘Sarà più amoroso quel dolce sguardo’ and ‘Questa sola è il mio tesoro’ inspiring Mineccia to singing of stirring musicality and unctuous eroticism. Like Bridelli, he uses Tamerlano’s lines in the terzetto with Asteria and Bajazet, ‘Voglio strage,’ to explicate the character’s stimuli. The fearsome aria ‘A dispetto d'un volto amoroso più sdegnoso già freme il mio cor,’ another number that shines in Händel’s setting, is similarly barnstorming in Gasparini’s. Mineccia’s performance veritably trembles with annoyance and exasperation. The operatic Tamerlano brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip suggesting that the only real tragedies in modern life are not getting what one wants and getting it. Gasparini’s Tamerlano is a man of voracious desires but limited patience, and Mineccia’s frenetic, prismatic singing not only heightens the dramatic effectiveness of the character but, more importantly, contributes to the high musical standards of the performance.

Interpreting the title rôle, first sung by Francesco Borosini, who was also Händel’s first Bajazet in Tamerlano in 1724, tenor Leonardo De Lisi rightly dominates the performance, singing with a near-ideal blend of heroism and sensitivity. The grandeur of his traversal of ‘Forte, e lieto a morte andrei,’ Gasparini’s setting even more exciting than Händel’s, is imposing, and the irrepressible energy and dignity with which he voices ‘Il suo fasto e il suo furore’ are invigorating. In Act Two, De Lisi tears the beating heart from the aria ‘Dalla fronte all'orgogliosa la corona io strapperò’ and holds it up for the listener’s scrutiny without placing a single note outside of the boundaries of good taste. This Bajazet undauntedly asserts his regal authority in the terzetto with his daughter and Tamerlano, ‘Voglio strage,’ and germinates the seeds of tragedy in his rich voicing of the arioso ‘No, il tuo sdegno mi placò.’ Listeners primarily acquainted with Nineteenth-Century opera may think it strange that the depictions of Bajazet’s suicide in Gasparini’s and Händel’s operas were considered almost scandalous in the Eighteenth Century. Händel’s resolution of Bajazet’s destiny in Act Three of Tamerlano is somewhat more musically accomplished, but Gasparini’s effort, casting glances back to the serious operas of Cavalli, Steffani, and Alessandro Scarlatti, is more moving. De Lisi prods both music and text in the aria ‘Quando il fato è più spietato’ in the fashion of a rider spurring his horse, not abusing the music but using his own talent to fully exploit the inherent power of the music. Prefacing Bajazet’s suicide, his singing of the arioso ‘Figlia mia non pianger, no’ seems intended solely for Asteria’s ears: hearing it seems an intrusion into an exchange between a father and his daughter too intimate for any medium but music. Casting impoliteness aside, it cannot be denied that there have been a few Bajazets in productions of Händel’s Tamerlano in the past quarter-century whose suicides far earlier than Act Three would have been welcomed. De Lisi inspires such sympathy for Gasparini’s Bajazet that the character’s demise is a lamentable loss—and that the lieto fine seems vaguely perfunctory and really rather inappropriate.

Though debates rage about many aspects of the Performing Arts, not least the continued viability of the Classical recording industry, it is frequently alleged that opera as an institution has enjoyed admirable success during the first fifteen years of the Twenty-First Century. With even very gifted singers struggling to find engagements, that success seems worryingly precarious, but an institution that has enabled modern listeners to hear a neglected opera as rewarding as Francesco Gasparini’s Il Bajazet has at least that triumph to its credit. Expertly produced by Carlos Céster, Glossa’s recording of Gasparini’s score is a grand achievement in its own right. Il Bajazet is not a flawless opera, and this recording of it is not without faults. Some of the most enjoyable performances in the history of recorded opera are those with foibles, though, and the singing of an uncommonly well-matched cast ushers this account of Il Bajazet into their ranks.