Notes and Editorial Reviews
William Christie, cond; Philippe Jaroussky (
); Max Emanuel Cencic (
); Alain Buet (
); Xavier Sabata (
); Damien Guillon (
); José Lemos (
); Pascal Bertin (
); Luigi De Donato (
); Jean-Paul Bonnevalle (
); Terry Wey (
); Ryland Angel (
); La Maîtrise de Caen; Les Arts Florissants (period instruments)
VIRGIN 18999 (2 DVDs: 162:00) Live: Caen 2007
began life in the tradition of Jesuit school plays, designed to emphasize the spiritual courage of saints. Cardinal Francesco Barberini and his brother, Taddeo, Prince Prefect of Rome, decided to put on one of these in a private showing at their splendid new family palace. They wanted to utilize the new musical form built around the heightened recitative style, what we would now call opera. The libretto was commissioned from a 30-year-old prelate, Giulio Rospigliosi, who would in time become Pope Clement IX, while the music was entrusted to Stefano Landi, a Roman contralto and composer who enjoyed substantial religious patronage throughout his career. As in the school plays, so here: castratos sang several of the major roles, while boy sopranos took the rest of the parts.
The 1632 opera is said to be the first on a historical subject, though the human subjects of several earlier mythological operas might have as much history at their core as
. The eponymous hero, the son of a Roman senator, gives up wealth, family, position, and a newly married bride to become a traveling Christian mendicant in Syria. He returns to his former home without revealing his identity, tempted by demons, taunted by servants, but performing menial tasks until his death 17 years later. At that point God provides a note clutched in the corpse’s hand that reveals his identity so as to inflict maximum grief upon his family—or perhaps to show the beauty of salvation. I forget which.
The libretto is cleverly written. Alessio’s self-questioning and his sessions arguing with the demon show some psychological insight, while the interjection of humorous scenes involving a pair of servants (with a strong folk flavor to the music) in half-masks provides the kind of contrast that was considered true to life, while intensifying the effect of the opera’s serious content.
Unlike some of the other productions that Christie and his forces have been involved in recently, this one strives for authenticity in both music and on stage. The costumes are fifth-century Roman and mid-Eastern as the Italian Renaissance imagined them: bright, rich, heavily embroidered red, green, and yellow fabrics, mixing a generalized awareness of the period with 17th-century modern fashions. Change of pace is provided not only by the pair of cruel but amusing servants, but also by a ratchet-waving chorus of minor demons (“Si disserino”), in black clothing wreathed with yellow and red streamers to act as stylized flames. (They appear with their own group of five dancers, proof that the Devil trips a mean rhythm.)
The action takes place in front of a stylized, two-tiered, three-sectioned Roman home, with several entry points at floor level and balcony, along similar lines to the backdrop used since the comedies of Terence and Plautus. Aside from occasional props, the set is bare, though some scenic effects (such as actual flames within doorways through which the demons enter) are employed. The acting is stylized, with graceful, arching gestures—presumably drawn from numerous Italian oil paintings, and from the theoretical writings of Count Bardi’s Florentine Camerata, which created opera.
Be on notice: if you dislike countertenors on principle, stay away from this production. It is rich in them, with some big names in the group. Jaroussky is outstanding as Alessio, with a light sound, brilliant or sweet as required, and fluent in coloratura. Just as fine is Cencic, whose sexless sound that I noted in a previous review of Gluck’s
hardly counts against him as the Wife. His sensitive phrasing and tonal shading are also pluses. I was less impressed with the consonant-depleted alto of Xavier Sabata, but Jean-Paul Bonnevalle’s voice could pass for a mezzo, while Terry Wey does full justice to his dramatic narrative parts as Rome (in the prologue) and Religion (in the epilogue). Pascal Bertin’s Messenger is especially adept at providing a honeyed tone to high, soft notes. The flat intonation and exaggerated slides that Damien Guillon and Jóse Lemos apply as the servant pair, under the impression that it is both authentic and funny, might be authentic, but is neither pleasant listening nor funny. They do act very well in tandem, however, and reveal a great range of expression, considering that they wear half-masks throughout.
Among the rest of the cast, bass Alain Buet makes an effective Eufemiano. Luigi De Donato is at once darker in tone, more focused, and provides better enunciation, while not quite having the resonance at the bottom of his voice, nor unforced strength at the top. Tenor Ryland Angel keeps too much of his sound in his mouth, swallowing much of it and approximating pitch. The chorus of children, when heard with little accompaniment in act I as Eufemiano’s servants (“Dovunque stassi”), is painful in its disunity and intonational problems, though satisfactory enough when subsumed within the chorus of adults later in the work.
Christie conducts a moving, well-paced production, and Les Arts Florissants are on the top of their form. The camerawork is varied in its shots and always excellent, never drawing attention to itself, but always finding the most important stage elements for display.
A 16:9 visual ratio is employed, with the audio choice of Dolby 5.0, DTS 5.0, and LPCM stereo. English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian subtitles are offered, but no cut listings and timings in the enclosed booklet. Virgin supplies a bare bones synopsis, and an essay that states quite literally that the Baroque was a “brazen publicity campaign” to resuscitate Roman Catholicism, the “creation of an art so rich, so sumptuous, so eloquent, that it lent glamour to a tired religion, dazzled entire populations, crushed all resistance and restored the prestige of the Holy See.” I’m not a Catholic, but still, the sheer magnitude of ignorance reflected in that remark humbles me. Believe me, there’s plenty more of the same, along with reflections on the “malicious cunning” of the Jesuits and the way the Counter-Reformation showed its contempt for women by having men impersonate them on stage. Amazing stuff.
This is definitely worth the purchase, if you view the religious subject sympathetically and don’t mind the parade of countertenors, often in female roles. The performances are almost uniformly fine, the music is theatrically motivated and often inspired, and the production as a whole (servants aside) is the kind that gives authenticity a good name. A few more like these, and I’ll be able to forget the Regietheater completely. For a time, at least.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian Read less
Works on This Recording
Il Sant'Alessio by Stefano Landi
Luigi de Donato (Bass),
José Lemos (Countertenor),
Pascal Bertin (Countertenor),
Xavier Sabata (Countertenor),
Damien Guillon (Countertenor),
Philippe Jaroussky (Countertenor),
Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor),
Alain Buet (Bass)
Les Arts Florissants
Written: ?1631; Italy
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