Saturday, October 16, 2010

Antonio Cesti - L'Orontea - Rene Jacobs, Concerto Vocale







This very welcome set presents the best-known Venetian opera of the mid-seventeenth century apart from those of Monteverdi and CavaIli. Antonio Cesti (1623-69) was a priest and tenor singer who forsook the priesthood—indeed seems to have led a slightly disreputable secular life—in favor of the theatre. Most of his early operas were written for Venice, his later ones for the Habsburg courts in Innsbruck and Vienna, where the climax of his career, the performance of his large-scale opera II pomo d'oro, took place in 1668. Orontea comes earlier in his career, possibly in 1649, the date traditionally assigned to it, or— if the 1649 Oromea was, as some scholars suggest, by a different composer—I656 (only this latter date is mentioned in the booklet accompanying these records).Cesti Its style will be familiar to anyone who has heard CavaIli's operas in anything like their original form: that is, It has the usual Venetian mixture of the serious and the comic, with expressive arioso and graceful triple-time arias (often on a ground bass) for the serious characters and tripping melodies of a more catchy kind for the servants. Cesti was a fine melodist, was resourceful in the treatment of strongly emotional scenes, and had a pleasantly fluent and witty touch in the comic sections. I do not find him quite so individual a composer as his rival CavaIli, who seems instantly recognizable in a way that Cesti is not; yet his handling of instrumental ritornellos, which seem to occupy a more important role here than they do in any CavaIli opera I have heard, has both personality and wit. The opera is populated by the same kind of character that one finds in Cavalli (the librettist here is C. A. Cicognini, whom Cavalli also set)—there is a page, a drunken older servant and an amorous elderly woman, besides the queen, Orontea, and her friends and advisers at the Egyptian court.
The plot is complicated in detail, though quite simple in outline: Orontea, untouched by Cupid when the opera starts, falls in love with a handsome painter who visits her court and who enslaves other female hearts there too, is advised to dismiss him as unworthy of a queen, and steels herself to doing so just when it turns out that he is a long-lost prince and thus acceptable after all as her consort. Plenty of opportunities here for the expression of various kinds of emotion: most go to Orontea herself, for example her jealous outburst when she discovers her Alidoro painting, and flirting with, another woman (Silandra) in Act 2, and her beautiful aria a little later when she leaves her sceptre beside the sleeping Alidoro. And the scene of her struggle between the claims of love and of duty—the climax of the opera, in a sense—is movingly set. No other character has music of quite this force, but there are some touching things for Alidoro, some charmingly coquettish pieces for Silandra, and some strong expression for her lover, Corindo. The performance here serves Cesti well: it is admirably paced (which is not easy) and particularly well accompanied—William Christie at the harpsichord uses a great variety of chordal patterns in his support of the recitative and the arioso, sensitive to meaning yet never sounding contrived or artificial. The violin playing too is superb, rhythmic, pointed, delicate, the ornamentation apt and neatly placed; the recorder playing is also very fine. Possibly the singing is rather less even. Orontea herself is in some degree the Scenography for Il pomo d'oro odd one out, for Helga Muller Molinari is stylistically much less aware, it would seem, than her colleagues; there is quite a lot of vibrato and roman.. tic shading as well as a hint of the fulsome to her tone. But she is certainly expressive, and it may perhaps not be considered improper that the singer of the principal role be permitted a little stylistic licence. The Silandra, Isabelle Poulenard, manages to bring feeling to her love scenes too while observing the stylistic constraints; her music is admittedly lighter. The most assured stylist among the sopranos however is in fact Jill Feldman, as Giacinta; her articulation and shaping are a model. The only Italian among them is Cettina Cadelo, as is all too easy to perceive from her superior handling of the words—and she has a pleasing voice, too, clean and well-defined, that serves admirably in the comic scenes for the page Tibrino. Among the men, Rene Jacobs of course excels as Alidoro by the sheer control and command of his singing, though one has to say too that the voice is not one of the most interesting or attractive as countertenors go. Nor in fact is David James's, full and round, and certainly intelligently used, but lacking a fine focus. Guy de Mey is amusing in the role of the elderly nurse Aristea, treated here (and very likely in seventeenth-century Venice too) as a transvestite tenor; and Gastone Sarti hits off the humor of Gelone's part very happily, again with the advantage of a native command of the opera's language—there is a real baritono cantante quality here, too. A suitable amount of ornamentation is added, most but not quite all of it appropriate and stylish. In sum a very satisfactory set, well recorded; warmly recommended. S.S.


mp4,cover thanks to africanorchid

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