When Cavalieri composed his Representation of the Soul and Body, there was no word to describe it: opera still meant someone’s written works, and music performed in Filippo Neri’s Rome oratory still had not come to be known as oratorio, hence the elaborate and wordy title. Music historians sometimes compromise by calling it a sacred opera or staged oratorio, which begs many questions, including the truth of Cavalieri’s own insistence that he beat both Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini to the draw in composing the first opera. Peri composed La Dafne in 1597, but his and Caccini’s Euridice, both of 1600, are the earliest extant examples of the form. You’ll find my thoughts on recordings of both in DL Roundup February 2012/2 (Caccini and Peri)Read more and DL News 2014/4 (Caccini)
Those pioneers in 1600 didn’t have to invent the form from scratch: the Intermedii known collectively as La Pellegrina, performed at a Medici wedding in 1589, to which Cavalieri, Caccini and Peri all contributed, had established the form of music drama, albeit on a smaller scale. The recording of the Intermedii featuring Emma Kirkby, Emily van Evera, Tessa Bonner and Nigel Rogers and directed by Andrew Parrott (mid-price Virgin/Erato 6026842) in its original EMI Reflexe format remains a prized CD in my collection. There’s a more recent and more complete recording, directed by Skip Sempé on the Paradizo label (PA0004), which I hope to investigate.
Don’t expect too much in the way of drama from any opera or dramatic oratorio before Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) and you won’t be disappointed by Rappresentatione in either of the enjoyable recordings in question: there’s also an earlier Naxos recording, now apparently download only, which didn’t much excite the reviewers in 1999. The various dialogues between representatives of body, soul, time, etc., are rather formal, much in the stylised manner of morality plays such as Everyman, but the music is colourful and the various instrumental interludes which Cavalieri specifies but didn’t provide add variety.
Cavalieri was still finding his way in this work, but many of the features of mature opera are present – there’s even an echo effect in the Second Act where the soul enquires of Heaven what virtues the body should pursue and receives as answer a reflection of the last words of each question: Ama il mondan piacer l’huom saggio o fugge? … Fugge. (Do the wise love worldly pleasure or flee from it? … Flee from it.)
All the vocal roles on both recordings are very well performed. The major part falls to L’Anima and it’s no surprise that Johanette Zomer (Alpha), whom I’ve praised on several occasions, is superb. This is my first encounter with Marie-Claude Chappuis who sings the part for René Jacobs, but she too is very impressive, though like Jacobs’ other soloists, she isn’t a baroque specialist. Emma Kirkby established an ideal voice type for the music of the period, not least on that recording of La Pellegrina. Zomer is a singer in the Kirkby tradition; the deeper-voiced Chappuis, who normally sings mezzo roles, has a more rounded tone.
Cavalieri did not provide the interludes, so Pluhar (Alpha) and Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi) select appropriate pieces from contemporary composers such as Susato, Merula and Schein. Both recordings select appropriately and on both the instrumental playing, both in the interludes and less overtly in accompanying the singers, is first-rate.
There’s very little to choose between these two recordings. If I say that Christina Pluhar plays the music a little more straightforwardly and René Jacobs pushes the boat out a little more and beefs up the instrumentation, don’t take either of those statements too literally. Certainly the instrumentation emerges less brass-dominated, more upholstered, than from Pluhar, though Jacobs is not afraid to employ some strident brass in places. Jacobs has previous form in this work, having performed it with much the same cast in a staged version at the Schiller Theater in 2012. I don’t know when the YouTube posting was recorded – presumably not then, as it’s a concert performance – at any rate it should give you a good idea of what to expect. There’s a performance by another group on YouTube – a decent version but it shows the superiority of the Jacobs.
Jacobs begins with a Sinfonia by Schein, the choral introduction in praise of God, O Signor santo e vero, then, like the Naxos recording, includes the rather tedious spoken prologue between Avveduto (sagacious) and Prudentio (prudent). I think Pluhar wise to omit the prologue and go straight from the opening Sinfonia and Intermedio (from Tielman Susato) to Tempo’s (Time’s) Il tempo fugge, Act I, scene i. On the other hand, I’m not sure why she also chose to omit the opening chorus.
I listened to both recordings in lossless sound from eclassical.com. Both are good but audiophiles should note that the Harmonia Mundi comes in 24-bit format. That was briefly available for the same price as 16-bit and mp3. Such short-term offers are worth looking out for: they are too briefly available to point out in reviews but the 24-bit is worth paying a little extra for – usually it’s still competitive with the price of the equivalent CD. The new recording also comes with the booklet; for the booklet with the Alpha recording you need to turn to Qobuz (link above); even Naxos Music Library and classicsonline.com, normally reliable in the provision of booklets, are no help on this occasion.
Rappresentatione is rather short to spread over two CDs so the new Harmonia Mundi is on sale for a little over the price of a single disc. You should also be able to find the Alpha recording for less than the cost of two full-price CDs. eclassical.com’s per-second pricing policy reduces the price of both even further, but the lack of booklet and texts with the eclassical download of the Alpha recording is a serious problem.
Both René Jacobs and Christina Pluhar make the music attractive and both effectively convey the variety, from intimate to ceremonial, very effectively. Both are well recorded and both are well documented. Even if you download the Alpha without booklet, eclassical.com make the Harmonia Mundi booklet available to all comers. Though I lean slightly towards the new Jacobs recording with its more varied instrumentation, it’s a close call. If you enjoy baroque opera, you should at least try this very persuasive recording of one of the earliest examples.
Rappresentatione de Anima, et di Corpoby Emilio de Cavalieri Performer:
Johannes Weisser (Baritone),
Marcos Fink (Baritone),
Gyula Orendt (Baritone),
Mark Milhofer (Tenor),
Marie-Claude Chappuis (Soprano)
Academy for Ancient Music Berlin
Period: Baroque Written: 1600; Italy