Tuesday 21 April 2020

Le Banquet Céleste's new recording of Alessandro Stradella's late 17th century oratorio San Giovanni Battista reveals a form in transition, looking back to Cavalli & forward to High Baroque

Alessandro Stradella San Giovanni Battista; Le Banquet Céleste, Damien Guillon; Alpha Classics
Alessandro Stradella San Giovanni Battista; Le Banquet Céleste, Damien Guillon; Alpha Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 April 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Highly dramatic 17th century Italian oratorio which strikingly demonstrates the genres debt to Italian opera

If you say 17th century Italian oratorio, then the chances are people will think of Giacomo Carissimi's Jephte (from 1648) and Jonas both of which were premiered in Rome. And during this period Rome had a significant amount of oratorio going on, so that the Latin texted works such as those of Carissimi were succeeded by works with Italian texts, with characters and dialogue. That some might approach sacred opera is not surprising, one of the reasons why such oratorios were popular in Rome is that quite often the Pope had banned opera!

On this new disc from Alpha Classics, the French group, Le Banquet Céleste director Damien Guillon perform Alessandro Stradella's 1675 oratorio San Giovanni Battista with Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian as Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist), Alicia Amo as Erodiade la figlia (the Salome figure), Olivier Dejean as Erode (Herod), Gaia Petrone as Erodiade la madre (Herodiade), Artavazd Sargsyan as consigliero (counsellor) and Thibault Givaja as discepolo (disciple).

The libretto, by Ansaldo Ansaldi, tells the story pretty much as we know it based on St Mark's Gospel. The work opens with St John the Baptist (Giovanni Battista) making his way to Herod's court to denounce Herodiade (Erodiade la madre) and ends with her daughter (Erodiade la figlia) rejoicing after St John the Baptist's death counterpointed with misgivings by Herod (Erode). Being an oratorio Erodiade la figlia cannot dance, so instead she enchants with her voice.

This is a large-scale and major work; as well as its premiere in Rome 1675, there are known to have been performances in Modena (1688), Florence (1693) and Rome (1698), and the Modena production, at least, may well have been staged, and indeed this recording is based on staged performances (directed by Vincent Tavernier) at Rennes Opera and Angers Nantes Opera. The work's first modern performance seems to have been in Perugia in 1949, when the role of Erodiade la  figlia was sung by Maria Callas!

At the premiere the role of St John the Baptist was taken by the famous castrato Giovanni Francesco Grossi, known as Siface, who was known for his operatic performances in works by Cavalli, and Scarlatti. Siface also travelled to England where he sang in King James II's chapel, but soon left because of the climate! There is no chorus as such, what choruses there are being sung by the soloists, and Stradella keeps the soloists as the focus. Another intriguing element to the work is Stradella's scoring, as he uses a concerto grosso layout with concertino and ripieno groups of strings.

Stradella: San Giovanni Battista - Le Banquet Céleste, Angers Nantes Opéra - (Photo Jean-Marie Jagu – Angers Nantes Opéra)
Alessandro Stradella: San Giovanni Battista - Le Banquet Céleste, Angers Nantes Opéra
(Photo Jean-Marie Jagu – Angers Nantes Opéra)
Stradella himself was quite a character. Born in Bologna, he moved to Rome in 1667 where he worked for Queen Christina of Sweden (who lived in Rome as a Roman Catholic after her abdication). But he led a dissolute life and at one point attempted to embezzle money from the Church. An affair with the mistress of a Venetian nobleman led to innumerable problems and assassination attempts, so much so that his life rather reads like a melodrama, and he has been the basis for operas by Cesar Franck (unfinished) and Friedrich von Flotow (premiered in Hamburg in 1844) amongst others.

Stradella also found time, between all this other activity, to write music. There are at least six operas, more than 170 cantatas and six oratorios.

The form of San Giovanni Battista owes quite a lot to Stradella's experience of opera, it is made up of fluid dialogue in recitative, which flows into ariosos and arias, whilst the short choruses seem to hark back to madrigals and to polyphony. Though there are a couple of large-scale arias, perhaps looking forward to the way oratorio and opera developed in the later baroque, many of the arias are short and it is noticeable that the work is made up almost like a patchwork of tiny fragments each flowing into the other. There is the feeling of recitative, arioso and aria familiar from the later baroque, but the tiny fragments mean that the fluidity harks back to the work for Monteverdi and Cavalli.

Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian [who was Tolomeo in English Touring Opera's recent revival of Handel's Giulio Cesare, see my review] makes a very poised John the Baptist, elegant and mesmerising in his more dramatic moments but overall the character is highly controlled, with poised calm moving towards the plangently moving end. And throughout you sense Benos-Djian's projection of the words.

Alicia Amo's Erodiade la figlia is lightly attractive, with some really delightful moments. By turns bravura and touching, a really captivating figure. Yet with a mind of her own, conveyed in the dramatic tussle with Benos-Djian's John the Baptist, and she also has a joyful duet with Olivier Dejean's Herod. This culminates in her seductive aria for Herod, touching, dramatic and then very bravura.

As her mother, Gaia Petrone is a wonderfully commanding figure, even in her opening two-line recitative, and Herodiade's main scene with Herod and her daughter results in fabulous drama.  The Herod of Olivier Dejean is a highly dramatic figure, with vivid show-piece arias. The counsellor, Artavazd Sargsyan, has a few solo moments which he contributes in a flexible, commanding way.

The ending moves from a terrifically vivid duet for Amo and Benos-Djian, leading to her triumphant aria, followed by a duet between Amo and Dejean which contrasts her delight with his doubt. And then curtain, striking and very sudden.

The music involves the instruments as much as the voices, so that there are two sinfonias which resemble concerto grossos, and during the main body of the work the way the voices and instruments interact is very striking.

This isn't the work's first recording on disc by a long chalk, with Alessandro de Marchi and the Accademia Montis Regalis on Hyperion,  and Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre on Erato, whilst it is worth exploring Andrea De Carlo and Ensemble Mare Nostrum recordings of some Stradella's other oratorios on Arcana.

This engaging account of the work has the advantage of being recorded after a series of live performances, so that we get a real sense of the drama of the work along with feeling for Stradella's transitional style, moving away from Monteverdi and Cavalli but not yet the High Baroque. Well worth exploring.

Alessandro Stradella (1643-1682) - San Giovanni Battista
Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian (countertenor) - Giovanni Battista
Alicia Amo (soprano) - Erodiade la figlia
Olivier Dejean (bass) - Erode
Gaia Petrone (mezzo-soprano) - Erodiade la madre
Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor) - consigliero
Thibault Givaja (tenor) - discepolo
Le Banquet Celeste
Damien Guillon (harpsichord & conductor)
Recorded in May 2019 at Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, France

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