Monday 31 January 2022

Loving & pretending: Alessandro Stradella's opera Amare e fingere explores the 17th centuries fascination with Arcadia, love & dissimulation

Alessandro Stradella: Amare e fingere; Mauro Borgioni, Paola Valentina Molinari, Josè Maria Lo Monaco, Luca Cervoni, Chiara Brunello, Silvia Frigato, Ensemble Mare Nostrum, Andrea de Carlo; Arcana

Alessandro Stradella: Amare e fingere; Mauro Borgioni, Paola Valentina Molinari, Josè Maria Lo Monaco, Luca Cervoni, Chiara Brunello, Silvia Frigato, Ensemble Mare Nostrum, Andrea de Carlo; Arcana

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 January 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A relatively recent discovery, one of Stradella's earlier operas on disc for the first time in an engagingly vivid performance

The composer Alessandro Stradella is perhaps still best known for his dissolute life than his compositions, though his output stretched to around 300 works in a variety of genres. When it comes to his operas, if they were considered at all it was the ones he wrote later in his career for Genoa. But thanks to recent scholarship we know that Stradella's engagement with opera dates back to earlier in his career. During the 1670s he worked in Rome (where he had been brought up) until having to flee the city in 1677, and thanks to the discovery of the inventory of a collection of musical scores created at the time by the pontifical cantor, Giovan Battista Vulpio, we know Stradella wrote at least three operas at this period, La doriclea (1672), Il Corispero,  and Amare e fingere which was staged in Siena in 1676 under the patronage of the Chigi family. And some nifty detective work has uncovered the score of Amare e fingere in the Vatican library amongst the Chigi papers. The surviving libretto was printed in Siena in 1676 to accompany the performance staged in honour of the Princess of Farnese, Maria Virginia Chigi, who sojourned in the city with her husband, Agostino Chigi, in May and June of 1676, to visit their daughters living in a nearby convent. The score is uncredited but the attribution to Stradella seems well founded.

Now we have a chance to experience Alessandro Stradella's Amare e fingere in a recording on the Arcana label recorded at the WDR Tage Alter Musik festival in Herne (Germany) on November 2018. Andrea de Carlo directs Ensemble Mare Nostrum with soloists Mauro Borgioni baritone, Paola Valentina Molinari soprano, Josè Maria Lo Monaco mezzo-soprano, Luca Cervoni tenor, Chiara Brunello alto, and Silvia Frigato soprano.

As might be expected from the circumstances of its first performance, the plot is remarkably light. The title translates as Loving and Pretending, and the libretto is loosely based on a 17th century Spanish comedy, Fingir y amar by Agustín Moreto. The plot explores the idea of dissimulation and the four enamoured characters all have double identities, they have royal and princely titles but are pretending to be lesser mortals in an idyllic pastoral location. The resulting complexities are what drives the plot. 

Artabano, Prince of Persia, travels through the Arabian countryside under the name of Fileno in search of his sister Despina, abducted ten years earlier by marauders. He is in love with Clori, a lady in waiting to Oronta, Queen of Arabia, who has chosen country life under the name Celia. Rosalbo (who in reality is Prince Coraspe, heir to the throne of Egypt), loves and is loved by Clori, while Celia for her part is in love with Rosalbo, and Clori is in reality Despina, Artabano/Fileno's sister! Confusion ensues, add to this two lesser characters, Silvano, tutor to Despina, and the elderly Erinda who contribute comic scenes.

The style of the opera is recognisably linked to those created by composers such as Cavalli (1602-1676) and Cesti (1625-1669). There is a small instrumental ensemble, two violins, gamba, cello and violone, plus theorbo, archlute, triple harp, harpsichord and organ, the arias can be almost song-like and there is a lot of recitative.  With no overture, the action plunges straight in and the libretto flows freely, with the arias interrupting and extending the drama and there is still quite a lack of formality to the work (characters interrupt each other) which contrasts with later Baroque operatic style. Another intriguing difference from later opera is that the two male heroes, Artabano and Coraspe, are sung by a tenor and a baritone which must be rather late for these type of voices to be used in major roles. By the 1680s it was becoming far more the norm that leading male roles were sung by castratos.

This is very much music drama, with the text and the plot to the fore. The arias are often quite short, and the longer ones are strophic, but Stradella seems to have a knack of creating plangent slow arias and catchy fast ones.

The fact that the characters are all disguised either adds layers of fascination or annoys depending on your point of view. Clearly this type of comedy appealed to Stradella's aristocratic contemporaries. On the one hand this sort of play of truth and dissimulation must have caught an element of what was needed in public life. But there was obviously something in the air, as the poetic circle around Queen Christina of Sweden (who had abdicated in 1654 and by 1656 was living in Rome) developed into the Arcadian Academy where the members were inspired by classic and pastoral mythology and took pastoral names. Perhaps it is significant that Stradella was one of the composers around the Queen, dedicating works to her.

The cast here are lively and vivid, they make the most of the recitative and dialogue, really engaging you. Often it goes at quite a lick, and it probably helps that all of them are native Italian speakers. If you can't follow the sung Italian (which is wonderfully clear), then you have to have recourse to the (excellent) libretto and translation which means enjoying the opera almost as a reading exercise. But if you put the text to one side then there is lots to enjoy and every single one of the arias and concerted numbers is a little delight. Quite a few arias have string accompaniments, which is relatively new compared to the earliest operas. And conductor Andrea De Carlo keeps everything buzzing along admirably. This is a live recording, and it shows, there is a vividness and energy to the performance and the drama really rattles along.

I will be quite frank, I am not quite sure where I would ever really care about these characters but this disc makes a fun exploration of a new sound-world and a period in opera that is still woefully underexplored. This is the seventh volume in Ensemble Mare Nostrum's Stradella series and they have already recorded his earlier opera La Doriclea and a later one, Il trespolo tutor, thus giving us an admirable way into this sound world. Both La Doriclea and Amare e Fingere are relatively recent discoveries and it is commendable that we are able to get them on disc so soon.

Alessandro Stradella (1643-1682) - Amare e Fingere
Artabano, Fileno - Mauro Borgioni baritone
Despina, Clori - Paola Valentina Molinari soprano
Oronta, Celia - Josè Maria Lo Monaco mezzo-soprano
Coraspe, Rosalbo  - Luca Cervoni tenor
Silvano - Chiara Brunello alto
Erinda - Silvia Frigato soprano
Ensemble Mare Nostrum
Andrea De Carlo (conductor)
Recording dates: 8-9 November 2018 – Recording venue: Kulturzentrum, Herne, Germany, during the festival Tage Alter Musik
ARCANA 493 2CD [68:47, 51:09]

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