Notes and Editorial Reviews
Il martirio di Santa Cecelia
Diego Fasolis, cond; Nancy Argenta (
); Marinella Pennicchi (
); Bernhard Landauer (
); Marco Beasley (
); I Barocchisti (period instruments)
cpo 777 258 (2 CDs: 108:49)
style="font-style:italic">Martyrdom of St. Cecelia
was written in Rome in 1708 at the behest of Cardinal Ottoboni who, it seems, also supplied the libretto. Exhausted by the demands of the Court at Naples, and frustrated in his efforts to attract the patronage of Ferdinando dei Medici, Scarlatti returned to Rome, where, as a young man, he had enjoyed the patronage of Queen Christina and the Cardinals Pamphili and Ottobone. Over a period of five years, he turned his attention from opera to create a brilliant series of cantatas and oratorios, of which
may be considered a summation. The score to this remarkable work was long considered lost. It surfaced briefly in 1949 at a Sotheby’s auction in London before disappearing once again into private hands. Now part of the Bodmer Foundation collection near Geneva, the score was prepared for publication (Oliver Mattern, 2000) by scholar Karl Böhmer. This edition was used for a performance in Zurich in 2000, from which this recording derives.
Cecilia was long held to be a Roman noblewoman, the wife of Valerian, who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the prefect Turcius Almachius under orders from the Emperor Alexander Severus in the third century. Ottoboni’s libretto creates dramatic conflict by portraying the prefect Almachius (i.e., Almachio, sung originally by a castrato, in this recording by a counter-tenor) as an imperial judge who has fallen in love with Cecilia (a soprano). He begs her to renounce her faith, honor the Roman gods, and accept his love. Two additional characters, Cecilia’s nurse (also a soprano) and Almachio’s counselor (a tenor), act as confidents to Cecilia and Almachio and attempt to forestall the inevitable tragedy. When Cecilia is eventually slain and Almachio goes mad, it is the nurse and counselor who, despite their doubts, glimpse the glory of Cecilia’s heavenly reward.
Scarlatti’s setting of this pregnant text reveals him in full command of his powers, as master both of the operatic stage and of music for the church. Character delineation, achieved through exquisitely idiomatic vocal writing, is disarmingly acute and affecting. His Cecilia seems closer in spirit to Monteverdi’s Clorinda than to any comparable Handelian heroines.
The lustrous orchestrations, here superbly realized by I Barocchisti, employ winds and drums in addition to strings and continuo. Diego Fasolis guides his soloists and orchestra deftly through this succinct and expertly crafted score with a sense of unerring momentum. Typical of the best period-instrument ensembles, phrase contours, and dynamic contrasts, those hallmarks of early-18th-century Roman music-making, stand out in vivid relief. Each of the soloists enters whole-heartedly into Scarlatti’s characterizations, successfully meeting his or her significant vocal challenges. My sole reservation about this performance, and a strictly personal one, is the casting of the renowned Canadian soprano, Nancy Argenta, in the title role. Argenta’s musicality is beyond reproach; her agility, and sensitive grasp of this fearsomely florid idiom leave little to be desired. In this recording, however, Argenta’s vocal production assumes a dry, piercing edge that, in its worst moments, is prone to chirpiness. This reservation aside, the recording represents a compelling realization of a masterpiece by one of the foremost exponents of the Italian Baroque. Recommended.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
Works on This Recording
Il martirio di Santa Cecilia by Alessandro Scarlatti
Marinella Pennicchi (Soprano),
Marco Beasley (Tenor),
Nancy Argenta (Soprano),
Bernhard Landauer (Countertenor)
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