FERVEUR ET EXTASE • Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mez); Héloise Gaillard, cond; Amarillis (period instruments) • AMBRONAY 027 (64:18 Text and Translation)
Selections by Cavalli, Rossi, A. Scarlatti, Faggioli, Falconieri, Strozzi, Marini, Monteverdi, Purcell
This is one of those compendiums where one is torn between whether it focuses on the vocalist, in the case mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac, or HéloiseRead more Gaillard’s period-instrument ensemble Amarillis. This is made even more confusing by the various pictures throughout the booklet and disc cover, most of which depict d’Oustrac in various poses, none of which to my mind seems to reflect either ecstasy or fervor, though she is obviously having a wonderful time recording these little-heard pieces. The title given in one section of the notes is “A Baroque Janus: The Two Faces of Love,” trying to link the Virgin Mary and Dido, two opposites of the emotional spectrum. This dichotomy is not, however, carried over entirely into the choices of music, for the former appears in only two of 23 works, Barbara Strozzi’s beautifully lyrical “O Maria” from her Affetti and Monteverdi’s more solid Il pianto della Madonna, one of the last works he wrote. Dido is better represented with a number of works, from Cavalli’s Lamento di Didone to excerpts from Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1696 opera Le Didone delirante. There is, of course, that old shoe, Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s overworked hemi-demi-semi opera, which given the repertory that is exclusively Italian could just as well have been left out. These are intermixed with various and sundry instrumental movements, ranging from the short fantasy by Luigi Rossi depicting Orpheus’s tears at the loss of Euridice, with its slow-moving static harmony, to several bits from Scarlatti’s concertos, drawn from manuscript sources.
In between these are a number of small gems, such as a cantata by Michelangelo Faggioli (1666–1733), O frodi, which is entirely dramatic, offering a small window into the emotional state of affairs when Aeneas is confronted by Dido as he leaves without saying goodbye. Faggioli, better known for writing the first-ever opera buffa in 1707, is deliberately Scarlattian in his pair of recitative-arias, relying only upon a continuo (with some particularly magnificent playing in the second aria) and the voice to provide the necessary emotion. This is a far cry from his comic works in Neapolitan dialect and demonstrates his depth as a composer. Some of the instrumental works are a bit slow-moving, such as the Cavalli canzon, a long, drawn-out fugue, or a Falconieri passacaglia, which meanders in stately tread. The concertos are all very fine, pre-Vivaldi works that I would have liked to hear in toto, as the composer carefully contrasts the recorder’s tone with the church orchestra of two violins and basso. Of particular interest is the wonderful chromatic fugue of the A-Minor concerto, presumably the final movement of this church work.
There are revelations here to be had, particularly in the flexible and vibrant mezzo of d’Oustrac, who handles the sometimes highly dramatic texts with a wonderful depth of expression. Both the Cavalli Lamento di Didone and the Monteverdi Il pianto della Madonna seem cut from the same Venetian cloth, long ramblings that hover between recitative dialog and arioso. She moves fluidly with the changes in emotional language, highlighting expressive phrases so that one is absorbed into the scene. She is appropriately joyous in the lyrical lines of Strozzi’s fervent prayer, with a nicely flowing theme. It is, however, in the excerpts from the Scarlatti opera that she is able to display both clean virtuosity in the florid lines as well as the ever-changing feelings of the principal character. The aria “Caro nome,” often heard as a toss-off in recitals, is sung with grace and fine nuances; one can hear Handel’s Cleopatra in the future, and it is no wonder that the German thought highly enough of it to borrow the line. In the furore finale from the last scene of the third act, Scarlatti chooses to alternate between sections of rage and recitative, which d’Oustrac carefully modulates so that when the final soft close comes, one feels absolutely drawn into the tragic scene.
Héloise Gaillard’s ensemble is an equal partner to d’Oustrac, never overshadowing her but also not retreating into the background. The fine continuo playing by Violaine Cochard, Emmanuel Jacques, Richard Myron, and Monica Pustilnik should serve as a model for appropriate and musical performance practice, but in truth the entire ensemble is to be commended for its expressiveness and tonal accuracy (only in the first section of the aria “Furie, turbini” is there a moment where the furious pace has them teetering on the edge, but this is fleeting). My only lament is that there is not more of the Scarlatti opera; this ensemble ought to consider doing a complete recording. It should also explore more of the cantatas of Faggioli, for his music is all but unknown, with only samples in a new disc by I Turchini on Glossa. While we ought to have more to look forward to in the future, connoisseurs of the late 17th century will want to have this highly recommended disc in their collection.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Ferveur & Extase explores the ‘fervour and ecstasy’ of profane and sacred love through music inspired by the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage on the one hand, and the Virgin Mary, on the other. Thanks to a fine balance of instrumental and vocal numbers, effective key progressions and an overall unity of textual and dramatic themes, the sequence never feels like a series of bleeding chunks – indeed, among recordings of 17th-century Italian music, this programme stands out for its musical integrity and cohesiveness.
Alongside familiar works by Purcell and Monteverdi are many fine rarities, including extracts from the recently unearthed opera Didone delirante by Alessandro Scarlatti which reflects Dido’s emotional transformation from ecstatic to wretched, and an intensely expressive cantata, also based on the Dido story, by the Neapolitan composer Michelangelo Faggioli.
Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac responds to the music’s vacillating moods with a gorgeous variety of vocal effects and colours. Directed by recorder player Héloïse Gaillard, ensemble Amarillis responds with equally mercurial temperaments, from sublimely intimate to brazenly flamboyant. With its opulent recorded sound, this is another captivating disc from Ambronay Editions.
Performance: 5 (out of 5); Sound: 5 (out of 5)