Friday, July 1, 2022

Stradella: Three operas

After having recorded Alessandro Stradella's oratorios, Andrea De Carlo turned to his operas. Although they are not completely forgotten, only a few are available on CD to date. Stradella as a person is still shrouded in mystery. Although we know that he was murdered in 1682 due to a love affair, we have fragmentary information about the various phases of his life and career. 1639 was always mentioned as the year of his birth, but it is now known that he was born in 1643. The study of his operatic activities has long focused on the later phase of his career, when he was in Genoa (1678-1682). However, he started composing operas much earlier, when he was still in Rome. A letter from a Milanese aristocrat states that as early as 1672 Stradella was known as one of the few composers able to set a libretto to music within two weeks. This earned him a good amount of money. In 1677 he had to flee Rome. It is certain that by this time he had already composed three operas. Amare e fingere [1] is probably one of them. It is not certain that he is the composer, because it has been handed down in a copy that does not mention the composer's name. However, there are very strong indications of Stradella's authorship. The work consists of three acts. There are six roles; however, four of them present themselves with a different name. This is something that often happens in baroque operas, and is one of the reasons why the plot is often so difficult to follow. This is also the case here. However, in this particular case it also reflects the tenor of the work, as the title suggests - in English: "Love and pretend". Appearance and reality are mixed up and whoever appears to be a servant at first is actually a ruler. At the end, the servant Erinda sums it up as she looks at a chessboard and says: "Some will be king, some will be queen, but poor Erinda will always be just a pawn." She is the comic figure in this work; in the 17th century such characters were still part of opera. In the 18th century, when the opera seria arose, they were relegated to the intermezzi. The instrumental scoring is small: only two violins and basso continuo. The work is closely related to early baroque opera: there are long recitatives - which incidentally have little in common with the recitatives of later opere serie - and now and then short arias and duets that do not yet have a da capo; only sometimes at the end of an aria the opening line is taken up again. In most arias the singers are accompanied by the violins (aria con strumenti); in some, however, they only play the ritornellos (aria con ritornello). Act III includes an aria con strumenti e la chitarra, but we don't hear a guitar and the list of players doesn't mention such an instrument either. An aria in the first act is based on a basso ostinato. It seems that the work comes without an opening sinfonia, as the performance begins with a recitative by Fileno/Artebano, one of the main protagonists of the work. Musically this opera is very entertaining and one can understand why Stradella had a good reputation as a composer. In quality his operas are not inferior to his oratorios. That's why this recording deserves an unequivocal welcome, especially as the interpretation is excellent. It is the recording of the live performance at the Tage alter Musik in Herne (Germany) and the rehearsals preceding it. Unfortunately, because of that some cuts were thought to be necessary. I didn't notice any background noise; either the listeners have behaved in an exemplary manner or the recording staff has done a great job. The performance was not staged; even so, the work's dramatic character comes off to full extent and there is a good interaction between the singers. Both dramatically and stylistically this recording is entirely convincing.

La Doriclea [2] is also one of the operas that Stradella composed in Rome. In this case his authorship is certain, as it is mentioned in an inventory from 1705, along with around 50 other volumes of music written by him. The author of the libretto may have been Flavio Orsini, a member of an aristocratic family with whom Stradella was friends. This makes it all the more remarkable that in this libretto the dividing line between social classes is crossed. There are two lovers: Lucinda (soprano) and Celindo (tenor), who belong to the upper class, and Doriclea (soprano) and Fidalbo (alto), who both belong to the middle class. There are also two lower-class comical characters, Delfina (alto) and Giraldo (bass). The two couples are plagued by jealousy, which causes much confusion, especially when Doriclea disguises herself as a man in Act II. In the end it is Delfina who prevents the worst - when Fidalbo decides to kill his lover Doriclea - and also manages to win over Giraldo, who always considered her too old and too ugly. That she, despite her low position, talked to Fidalbo was unheard of at the time. Andrea De Carlo points out in the libretto that Stradella, although composing his operas for an aristocratic audience, liked to poke fun at the habits of the aristocracy of his day. The stylistic features are largely the same as in the opera Amare e fingere just discussed. The arias are mostly short and have no da capo, and the accompaniment is limited to two violins and basso continuo. The social difference between the two pairs of lovers and the two 'low' characters is expressed in the fact that Delfina and Giraldo are only accompanied by basso continuo in their arias. Incidentally, the arias are particularly beautiful, as are the strikingly large number of duets. They are often based on a dance rhythm. This is nicely emphasized in the interpretation of the ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. In any case, Stradella's opera is in the best of hands with these interpreters. I have very much enjoyed this performance, because of Stradella's fine music, with quite some variation, and because of the excellent performances by the singers and instrumentalists. I would particularly like to mention Riccardo Novaro, whose account of the role of Giraldo is simply brilliant.

The third production takes us to Genoa, where Stradella worked the last years of his life and where he was murdered in 1682. Il Trespolo tutore [3] is a commedia per musica in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. There are no characters from the upper class here; all the protagonists belong to the middle and lower classes. Again, love it is central subject, and once again this is something that causes utter confusion due to changes in appearance. Stradella characterized the libretto as "ridiculous but beautiful"; In his view, Genoa's music lovers "had a taste for ridiculous things". It is questionable whether this can still be understood today. Humor is also a very personal thing. Anyway, the whole thing did never make me even smile. Here, too, there are beautiful but short arias and duets. However, the largest part of this work consists of recitatives, and that might not be easy for today's audiences to digest, especially since comedy lacks drama and suspense. It's quite theatrical, but that doesn't really come off in a performance without staging and acting. I am not sure that a work like this will survive, unless it is presented in a staged performance; a DVD production would have been more appropriate. I got a bit bored after a while. However, that is not due to the performance; on the contrary. All the singers deliver excellent interpretations and the main characters are perfectly cast with Roberta Mameli and Riccardo Novari. The ensemble Mare Nostrum is outstanding. Andrea De Carlo has developed into a Stradella specialist, who has given us some excellent recordings of his oratorios and operas. I am looking forward to future productions of vocal music by Stradella.

[1] Amare e fingere
Silvia Frigato (Erinda), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina/Clori), soprano; José Maria Lo Monaco (Oronta/Celia), mezzo-soprano; Chiara Brunello (Silvano), contralto; Luca Cervoni (Coraspe/Rosalbo), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Artabano/Fileno), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A493 (© 2021) details

[2] La Doriclea
Emöke Baráth (Doriclea/Lindoro), soprano; Giuseppina Bridelli (Lucinda), mezzo-soprano; Gabriella Martellacci (Delfina), contralto; Xavier Sabata (Fidalbo), alto; Luca Cervoni (Celindo), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Giraldo), baritone; Il Pomo d'Oro/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A454 (© 2018) details

[3] Il Trespolo tutore
Silvia Frigato (Ciro), Roberta Mameli (Artemisia), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina), soprano; Rafal Tomkiewicz (Nino), alto; Luca Cervoni (Simona), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Trespolo), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A475 (© 2020) details

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