A. SCARLATTI Venere, Amore é Ragione. Sinfonia di Concerto Grosso No. 10 • Piero Cartosio, cond; Gabriella Costa (Venere); Veronica Lima (Amore); Elena Biscuola (Ragione); Les Élements (period instruments) • DISCANTICA 209 (54:49 Text and Translation)
In 1706 Alessandro Scarlatti wasRead more commissioned by the Accademia dell’Arcadia in Rome to set a text by fellow member Silvio Stampiglia. The result was a serenata, a sort of non-action short celebratory opera set in the countryside among the shepherds and nymphs. The plot is about as simple as one might imagine. Venus (soprano) can’t find her son, Cupid/Amore (soprano). Reason/Ragione (mezzo-soprano, originally a castrato) tells her that he has gone to be among the innocent bucolic denizens of the seven hills about Rome. She feels that he is being seduced into the idyllic life there and fears that he will lose his power. Reason argues that Cupid will achieve his goals only by allowing logic and virtue to direct him. Cupid arrives and sides with Reason, telling his mother that, without his mitigating influences, the power of love will have no lasting effect. He finally convinces her that under the influence of Reason he has been far more successful than if he were guided by love and emotion alone. Venus acquiesces and vows that she too will follow Reason, and the entire nymphs and shepherds are invited to dance in celebration of their reconciliation.
This is, of course, not the most exciting of plots, and the stylized poetry of the text offers no real opportunity for dramatic contrast, like his other Venus serenata, Venere e Amore. Instead, there is a series of arias that comment upon the notion of reasonable love, which in turn avoids some of the frilly and sometimes over-the-top affects in opera seria. The scoring is simple, a pair of oboes or flutes, strings, and continuo, and each character has an equal chance at arias. Scarlatti’s music can be extremely affective, such as the mincing bass line in the brief second movement of the opening sinfonia, above which the violins hover in suspensions, sounding all the world like a church sonata fit for one of the Roman churches. All such mysterious, ethereal sounds are washed away by the finale, in which the minuet phrases conclude with rather accented cadences, almost like the stamping of feet. The arias themselves tend to be somewhat shy on coloratura, focusing upon simple phrasing and dancelike rhythms. Reason’s first aria, “O pastorelle,” has the flutes in parallel thirds alternating in ritornello fashion with the voice’s simple cantata-like melody. As the work opens, Venus enters abruptly and plaintively, almost whispering her search for Cupid, with each “dove?” softer and more poignant. Her son, however, does have considerable ornamentation, with flighty triplets in his first aria, “È vago il vedere,” in which the rhythm even infects the continuo, which rolls right along. Unlike many works of the period, there are several ensemble numbers, including the pensive terzett “Due leggiardre pastorelle” and the almost hymnlike duet of Venus and Cupid, “Ragione è il mio bel nume.” At the end there is even a nice set of three dances, the last of which devolves into an aria, all seeming to my ears in a French style with a march and a really short peasant dance that reminds one of Lully. The final Sinfonia di Concerto Grosso” is a mixed bag, somewhat like Arcangelo Corelli, though with more to it than a simple concertino versus ripieno set of movements. Here the recorders are prominent just when one expects a more conventional setting, showing that Scarlatti was not above providing some surprises to his listeners.
The period-instrument ensemble Les Élements is well disciplined and the textures blend well with the voices. Soprano Veronica Lima has a light, brilliant soprano as Cupid, handling her often tortuous lines with ease and lightness, just as one might expect a flighty character to do. Gabriella Costa is also quite dramatic at times, though on occasion there is a wobble in her line; I’m still trying to decide whether she is adding it as some sort of ornament or whether it has simply crept in to her performance practice, since it comes and goes. I would wish for a bit more depth to Elena Biscuola’s Reason, but the part itself is musically somewhat static, not allowing for much leeway in terms of interpretation. In her second aria, “O voi constanti,” she tenuously adds a bit of vibrato, and I suppose that in Scarlatti’s day such a melody would be ripe for extended improvised display. But her decision to stay with what was written lends her character a certain gravitas, which I much appreciate. Overall, this is a fine performance, and one that should be considered if Scarlatti is of interest. One quibble that some will have is that there is no English (or other language) translation of the serenata’s text included in the booklet, though it is not difficult to find elsewhere.