Saturday, November 17, 2018

Francesco Feo: San Francesco di Sales

Next year (2019), the Early Music Festival Utrecht will be dedicated to Naples. That is a good choice, because for several centuries this city was one of the musical metropoles of Italy and even of Europe. Naples was famous not only because of the music. There was also a lot to see. Hence the famous statement by the German poet Goethe: "First see Naples, then die".

Nowadays only a small part of the music, which was composed in Naples, is known, despite the efforts of Antonio Florio in particular. For many music lovers, Naples is mainly the city of Pergolesi, whose Stabat mater is performed across the globe every year and is available in many recordings. Some may also know the names of Leonardo Leo, Francesco Mancini and Antonio Porpora, but that's about it. The name of Francesco Feo (1691-1761) will probably be known to only a few. He should be better known: the English music journalist Charles Burney regarded him as one of the greatest Neapolitan masters of his time. He was born in Naples and studied at one of the many conservatories there. He soon began composing operas, like most of his colleagues. His large oeuvre includes a considerable number of operas, but he contributed to almost every genre of his time. Only instrumental music is absent in his output. Like most opera composers, Feo also wrote oratorios. Stylistically there is little difference between the two genres anyway. That is also the case with the oratorio that Fabio Biondi recorded for Glossa, San Francesco di Sales.

In many oratorios from the 17th and 18th centuries, the protagonist has to choose between the path of virtue and the temptations of a worldly life. That is not the case here. One of the allegorical figures from this oratorio is called Eresia, Heresy. From this it is immediately clear that this is not a work with a moral dilemma, but a theological conflict. That has everything to do with the person in the title of the work. While many saints in the Roman Catholic Church are probably no historical figures, Francis of Sales was. His name derives from the castle at Thorens in France where he was born in 1567; he died in 1622 in Lyon. For a number of years he was bishop of Geneva and Annecy, and this oratorio refers to this. Since the Reformation Geneva was in the hands of the Calvinists and therefore the bishop resided in Annecy. Francis's ambition was to bring the area back into the lap of the church of Rome. He had some success with this: in the Chablais region a part of the Calvinist population returned to the Roman Catholic Church. In this oratorio Heresy symbolises Calvinism. In 1665 Franciscus was canonized.

This oratorio is not really dramatic; there is hardly any action. In fact, it is mainly a dispute between two parties: on the one hand Heresy, assisted by Deceit (Inganno), on the other side Francis, assisted by an angel (Angelo). The work comprises a series of recitatives and arias, and in that respect is not different from an opera. It consists of two parts, both ending with a short chorus. In the first part the conflict between the two parties is described, in the second part we see Francis and the angel win the battle. The four roles are divided among the four voice types: the angel is a soprano, Francis an alto, Heresy a tenor and Deceit a bass. In this recording the role of Heresy is sung by a soprano. The booklet does not explain this, in my opinion, unfortunate decision.

That is not the only shortcoming of this recording. The main disappointment is that this is not played on period instruments. The Stuttgarter Kammerorchester is a modern ensemble that covers a wide repertoire. More and more ensembles of this kind are being trained by specialists in historical performance practice and that is in itself a positive development. Fabio Biondi is an experienced baroque specialist and the orchestra's way of playing is clearly based on historical performance practice. Unfortunately, the playing of in particular the strings is sometimes not very subtle. That is not always necessary, but here I think it is sometimes a bit too rough and unpolished. I need to add that the acoustic doesn't exactly favour the orchestra, or the performance as a whole, for that matter. The sound is blown up and there is too much reverberation. Moreover, I have always regarded Biondi more or less as a compromise figure; his violin playing is rather different from that of most of his colleagues. Under a different director the instrumental part might have been better.

Another recording of this work, on period instruments, is not to be expected. That is a shame, because this oratorio is a really nice piece, and there is every reason to be happy with its rediscovery. Moreover, the performance of the singers on the whole is excellent. Many recordings of baroque oratorios and operas are ruined by a wide vibrato of singers, who are hardly able to make their texts being understood and who go overboard in their addition of ornamentation and cadenzas. That is not the case here. Although Roberta Mameli and Luca Tittoto are not without some vibrato, it generally does not go beyond what is acceptable. Monica Piccinini's singing is superb and Delphine Galou is totally convincing, stylistically and in the interpretation of the title role.

In short, this is a nice addition to the discography of Neapolitan music of the 18th century, but the performance has some loose ends.

N.B. As on my site I publish only reviews of recordings on period instruments, I decided to review this disc here.

Francesco Feo: San Francesco di Sales, oratorio in two parts
Monica Piccinini (Angelo), Roberta Mameli (Eresia), soprano; Delphine Galou (San Francesco), contralto; Luca Tittoto (Inganno), bass
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Fabio Biondi
Recorded April 2017 at the Stiftskirche, Stuttgart, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
Cover, track-list and booklet
Glossa - GCD 923409 [2.17'52"]