Monday 24 February 2020

The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah

Michelangelo Falvetti - Il Diluvio Universale
Michelangelo Falvetti Il Diluvio Universale; Musica Antica Rotherhithe; Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 February 2020
The UK premiere of Falvetti's quirky Sicilian oratorio, engages and still has a strong message

When discussing 17th century Italian music, particularly secular music, we have a tendency to concentrate on a few great names and major centres. It is all very well listening to operas by Cavalli from Venice, by Rossi from Rome, and perhaps by Alessandro Scarlatti from Naples but what about other centres, other cities. Take Michelangelo Falvetti (1643-1693) for instance, he is hardly even a name to conjure with yet a significant body of his work survives and has started to be recorded. A priest, he worked consistently in Sicily (in Palermo and in Messina), writing music for use in the church, both instrumental music and oratorios.

Musica Antica Rotherhite gave the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale (The Great Flood) at Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe on Saturday 22 February 2020, with singers Caitlin Goreing (contralto), Camilla Seale (soprano), Jessica Eucker (soprano), Oliver Doyle (tenor) Joachim Sabbat (bass) and Tristram Cooke (counter-tenor), and instrumentalists Maxim Del Mar and Ilana Cravitz (violins), Jam Orrell (viola), Camilla Morse-Glover and Harry Buckoke (violas da gamba), Peter Martin (Theorbo/Baroque Guitar) and Christopher Jeanes (harpsichord). Thanks to a generous sponsor, the proceeds from the concert went to Operation Noah.

Musica Antica Rotherhithe was founded in 2016 by Jessica Eucker and Oliver Doyle, setting out to explore lesser known music from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the group's home base is Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe (a post-war building replacing the original 19th century church which was bombed in 1940). The performers were from a mixture of backgrounds, some were still at college, some are professional singers or musicians, others having trained in music have moved into other careers, (Saturday's performers included someone who works in finance, and a director of the classical music agency Intermusica).

Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale was premiered around 1682 in Messina where Falvetti had just taken up the post of Maestro di Capella at the Cathedral. The libretto was specially written by the Sicilian academician Vincenzo Giattini. It is quite curious as it jumps over large chunks of the story, and the main thrust of the piece is moral rather than to tell a dramatic story. But Falvetti's musical approach is often dramatic, but not always and some things (such as the reaction of mankind to the flood) are rather skated over.

The work starts with a prologue where Divine Justice (Caitlin Goreing), supported by the four elements, Water, Air, Fire, Earth (Camilla Seale, Jessica Eucker, Oliver Doyle Joachim Sabbat), announces that she is going to punish mankind. A duet for Noah (Oliver Doyle) and his wife Rad (Camilla Seale) reveals them to be on the Ark, God (Joachim Sabbat) appears to them and informs them that they are to be inundated by a flood (I said the plot had holes in it!). The final section is devoted mainly to Death (Tristram Cooke) a rather gleeful figures who clearly relishes his job. There is a final moralising chorus.

The cast all came together for the choruses, and whilst the music was unfamiliar everyone performed this rather quirky drama with relish. From the opening, where Divine Justice interrupts the overture , it is clear that Falvetti allowed himself a freedom with structure. The whole piece was very fluid, with Monteverdian recitative moving easily into arioso and bravura arias. Clearly whoever the first cast were, they were talented. The roles were doubled (except for Divine Justice and Death), and I wondered whether the original would have had boys singing the alto and soprano roles (what was performance practice in churches in 17th century Sicily, I wonder?).

There were some entirely serious moments, such as a couple of the choruses including the surprisingly large scale on 'And who will help me? In a sea without short to the waves'. This one also had one of Falvetti's imaginative touches as though the music is quite serious, the text breaks off as the people are drowned!  But, throughout the performance the adjective I used most in my notes was 'perky'. There is a lot of rhythmically upbeat, almost toe-tapping music in this piece, and the culmination was perhaps Death's gleeful final dance.  More surprising was that Human Nature (a wonderfully fragile Jessica Eucker) sang her final aria 'Open to me the passage to Death' to another toe-tapping dance. In his comprehensive essay in the programme Oliver Doyle points out that in Southern Italy the tarantella was originally a courtship dance, so Doyle speculates that Falvetti is showing how life is linked to death.

Caitlin Goering impressed greatly as a highly dramatic Divine Justice, with a fine bravura rage aria. Joachim Sabbat used his resonant bass voice to good effect as God, whilst Tristram Cooke attacked Death's music with relish and glee. Oliver Doyle and Camilla Seale had a touching love duet as Noah and his wife, with undulating accompaniment suggesting the waves. Jessica Eucker was a fragile Human Nature, but still capable of virtuoso moments as well!

The performing area in the church was rather limited, with the singers in front of the instrumentalists. Some of the more complex ensembles would, I think, have been improved if a way could have been found for harpsichordist Christopher Jeanes to be able to have eye contact with singers and instrumentalists.

That said, this performance was given with great relish and not a little virtuoso bravura. Each singer had their moments and grasped them firmly. The instrumentalists were similarly accomplished, with some impressive solo playing from individual members.

You feel that Falvetti's music warrants further exploration (there is another piece La Giuditta which is unusually sexual for its time!), and we must be grateful to Musica Antica Rotherhithe for having the courage to put on such an unknown piece. It was a courage that was well rewarded, as there was a suitably appreciative and capacity audience. We were treated to an encore, a repeat of one of the choruses. As the evening was a benefit for Opera Noah is seemed entirely appropriate to end with the words 'Ah, that at the end of so cruel a tragedy form a scene indistinct, the shipwrecked world, and nature extinct'

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