Friday 17 July 2020

Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome

Alessandro Scarlatti Il martirio di Santa Teodosia; Emmanuelle de Negri, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Renato Dolcini, Anthea Pichanick, Les Accents, Thibault Noally; APARTE
Alessandro Scarlatti Il martirio di Santa Teodosia; Emmanuelle de Negri, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Renato Dolcini, Anthea Pichanick, Les Accents, Thibault Noally; APARTE

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Scarlatti's oratorio gets its first recording in an engaging performance, which opens a valuable window onto the world of 17th century Italian oratorio

From the mid-17th century, oratorio in Italy started to move away from its sacred roots and take on elements of opera. Whilst there were still oratorios in Latin, those in Italian developed and instead of narrator and chorus the works relied on the interaction between characters (Biblical, historical or allegorical) in a sequence of arias and recitatives. This arose particularly in Rome where staged performances of opera were intermittently banned, leading to the development of oratorio as something of a replacement.

Giacomo Carissimi wrote some of the best known Italian oratorios of the period, including Jephte (1648), so it is perhaps not surprising that his probable pupil Alessandro Scarlatti should also write quite a number of oratorios.

A new recording of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio Il martirio di Santa Teodosia has been issued on the Aparte label performed by Les Accents, directed from the violin by Thibault Noally, with soloists Emmanuelle de Negri (Teodosia), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arsenio), Renato Dolcini (Urbano), and Anthea Pichanick (Decio).

We do not know who commissioned Il martirio di Santa Teodosia nor who wrote the libretto, but it is postulated that the work was premiered in Rome in 1683 and it was presented in Modena two years later, and the libretto printed in Modena in 1686 (with no mention of the names of the composer or the librettist).
Teodosia was a saint of the early Christian church who comforted Christian prisoners awaiting interrogation and hence was ordered to be executed by the governor, Urbanus, in 308. In the oratorio, we hear from Teodosia herself and Urbanus, but also from Urbanus' son Arsenio who is in love with Teodosia. There is also that useful thing, a confidant character Decio. Arsenio's love is unrequited and his petitioning of Teodosia serves, in the libretto, to emphasise her certainty that she wishes to be true to God and is prepared to suffer and to die. And unlike Handel's Theodora, which has a not dissimilar story, Arsenio does not join Teodosia in death at the end. There is not a lot of narrative, instead we explore Teodosia's states of mind in her nine arias (Arsenio has four, Urbano three and Decio two).

There are ensembles (two duets, a trio and a quartet), but the work proceeds very much by the alternation of aria and recitative, and these can be quite short so that the entire work lasts 75 minutes and has 38 movements, many very short yet Teodosia's central aria in Part one, 'Se il Cielo m'invita' lasts over seven minutes.

Such works were not designed to offer plot development or character twists, instead they were meant to be uplifting and nobly informative. So, though Scarlatti is borrowing from opera and from cantata, the music does not have the dramatic impetus we should expect from an operatic drama. But Scarlatti is very adept at varying the textures and colours of the music, and bringing out the varied emotions of the characters.

Emmanuelle de Negri makes a poised Teodosia, admirably firm in her intentions yet touching in her devotion and with a warmth which takes the chilly edge of the character's idealism. And her music isn't all careful devotion, her aria to open part two, 'All'armi o constanza' is wonderfully virtuosic as she rejoices in her constancy and aid from Heaven. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro makes an ardent Arsensio, whilst Renato Dolcini blusters wonderfully as the 'baddie' Urbano. Anthea Pichanick provides fine support.

The orchestra is string based, with a bassoon joining in the bass-line, and continuo from harpsichord, organ and archlute. The instrumental contribution is surprisingly active, and the orchestra and continuo do a lot more than simply sit in the background. Thibault Noally, directing from the violin, draws fine performances from all his players and the results are stylish and engaging.

The CD booklet contains a valuable background article by Luca della Libera along with full text and translations.

Scarlatti's Il martirio di Santa Teodosia is never going to break any new ground nor thrill with its daring; it is intended to both uplift and entertain, inform and enlighten. Here Thibault Noally, Les Accents and the cast give us performance which allows us to engage with the work. This is, I think, the work's first recording and it continues the valuable work that groups are doing investigating archives and allowing us to create a greater background to the music of the 17th century.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) - Il martirio di Santa Teodosia
Emmanuelle de Negri (Teodosia)
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arsenio)
Renato Dolcini (Urbano)
Anthea Pichanick (Decio)
Les Accents
Thibault Noally (director)
Recorded at l’Église allemande Protestante (Paris), 9 - 12 September 2019
APARTE AP232 1CD [75:17]

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