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Mazzocchi: La Catena d'Adone / Achten, Scherzi Musicali

Mazzocchi / Scherzi Musicali / Achten
Release Date: 03/13/2012 
Label:  Alpha Productions   Catalog #: 184   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Domenico Mazzocchi
Conductor:  Nicolas Achten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scherzi Musicali
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

D. MAZZOCCHI La Catena d’Adone Nicolas Achten, cond; Luciana Mancini ( Falsirena ); Reinoud van Mechelen ( Adone ); Merel Elishevah Kriegsman ( Venere/Ninfa ); Catherine Lybaert ( Amore/Ninfa ); Marie du Roy ( Idonia/Ninfa ); Dávid Szigetvári ( Apollo/Pasore Read more class="ARIAL12">); Olivier Berten ( Oraspe/Pastore ); Nicolas Achten ( Areste/Plutone/Pastore ); Scherzi Musicali ALPHA 184 (2 CDs: 131:56 Text and Translation)

Nothing is known of the musical training of Domenico Mazzocchi (1592–1665). He was a seminary student in his birthplace of Civita Castellana, took lower orders in 1606, and sometime around 1619 was made a Doctor of Laws in Rome. It was as a musician, however, that he joined the court of the powerful Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini, who served as papal chamberlain. Mazzocchi was a consummate player of the Italian patronage system. His sole surviving opera—heard here in what we are told is the premiere recording—was commissioned by the cardinal’s brother, Prince Giovanni Aldobrandini. That prince’s daughter, Olimpia Aldobrandini Borgehese, was the recipient of his Musiche sacre, e morali ’s dedication in 1640. In turn Olimpia’s second husband, Camillo Pamphili, was the nephew of Giovanni Battista Pamphili, who as Pope Innocent X arranged a benefice for Mazzocchi. It wasn’t the composer’s first benefice, however, as he was also on exceedingly good terms with the Barberini clan, especially Cardinal Antonio Barberini and Maffeo (later Pope Urban VIII) Barberini.

La Catena d’Adone was first performed in 1626. The subject was of the kind to draw the approval of its urbane, well-educated audience, its five acts concerned with the intertwining love affairs of Venus, Apollo, Adonis, and the plot motivator, an enchantress named Falsirena. Typical, too, was the Christian allegory offered at the conclusion of the score, one that informs us among other matters how “Adonis … who far from the Deity of Venus goes through encounters of various labors, is the Man, who far from God makes many mistakes.” It is unknown how seriously the allegory-of-the-minute was taken by the nobles and ecclesiastics after the night’s Greco-Roman mythological entertainment.

Musically, the work is also typical of Roman opera at its time: sophisticated in its allocation of vocal and orchestral forces and conservative in approach to the medium, similar to Florentine opera of a quarter of a century earlier. The almost continuous recitar cantando is closer to Jacopo Peri in its chromaticism, striking juxtaposition of keys, and bold dissonances than to his main rival Caccini, but the latter’s popular manner and texturally divided forms can be found in a few brief instances. Adonis’s “Dunque piagge ridenti” and Falsirena’s “Quà tragioie gradite” are good examples of Mazzocchi’s short walking-bass ariettas; the scene for nymphs and shepherds, “Mira, mira gioioso,” with its mix of chorus, soloists, and duet textures, suggests familiarity with Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo . Interestingly, a couple of those ariettas, or mezz’arie , occur at the end of scenes, pointing to what would become a rigid convention under the evolving rules of opera seria . If the music only seldom rises to an inspired level of lyrical impulse, it yet provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when opera was still in its early stage of development, and many different solutions were being tried to fit words and music together.

I last reviewed Nicolas Achten’s Scherzi Musicali in 2009, in a recording of Caccini’s L’Euridice (Ricercar 269). I had two major objections at the time: first, a passionless treatment of the material, and second, a large, over-reverberant acoustic, with the singers placed back from the microphones. The engineering problems are fortunately not an issue on this release, which puts the singers close to the microphones, and does away with the dreaded Early Music Cathedral sound. Lyric tenor Reinoud van Mechelen is now revealed to possess an interesting flicker vibrato—sometimes white and strained in timber, sometimes capable of astonishing beauty. Dávid Szigetvári offers an attractive, moderately darker tenor in contrast, and Marie du Roy, whose bright soprano alone possessed appeal in L’Euridice , demonstrates strong chest support. I’m not fond of the acidic tone of mezzo Luciana Mancini, and Achten’s own well-trained voice remains dull, but there’s more character in the cast’s use of dynamics and vocal color to convey emotion. Whether this is a recent development or a result of all the voices being drained of overtones on the earlier release isn’t a question I can resolve. Upon rehearing that Euridice it still sounds as inexpressive as it did nearly three years ago, and a world apart from the treatment accorded La Catena d’Adone.

Full Italian text with French and English translations are provided. One curiosity deserves to be mentioned, though: The content, three columns to a page, often falls out of horizontal alignment. This can make it difficult to read, as when Oraspe’s text in Italian is across from Falsirena’s text a few lines down in English. Blank spaces at scene conclusions straighten things out—for a short while, at least.

In any case, recommended. Achten’s instrumental ensemble is first-rate, and even though his vocal one is uneven, they’re stylistically current, delightfully agile and clean in figurations, and thoroughly involved.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal


Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is generally considered the first real opera in music history. It was the first in what would become a long and rich tradition which is still alive. It was not long before operas were being performed in various towns and courts across Italy. Rome wasn't one of them, though. Here the first opera was performed as late as 1626. It was composed by Domenico Mazzocchi, and entitled La Catena d'Adone (The chain of Adonis). The story is about the enchantress Falsirena who has fallen in love with Adonis. When he resists her approaches she binds him with an invisible magic chain. She then finds out that he is in love with Venus. She decides to trick him by taking on the appearance of Venus. She fails when Venus herself turns up and sets Adonis free. Venus orders her son Cupid (Amore) to bind Falsirena with the chain she had used for Adonis.
It was largely due to the negative attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities that the opera genre was only slowly embraced. Sometimes the honour of being the first opera is given to La Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo by Emilio de' Cavalieri which was performed in Rome in 1600. This piece was a morality play: man is tempted to look for happiness in earthly things, but characters around him try to make him realise that true happiness can only be found in eternal life. Interestingly, La Catena d'Adone links up with this moral tenor of De' Cavalieri's 'opera'. It is an allegory: the moral message is not included in the opera itself - as in La Rappresentazione - but is explained in an addition to the score. Falsirena is a symbol for the human soul whose reason can easily be overcome by sense. Adonis symbolises man who, far from God, makes many mistakes. Only when God intervenes does the human soul return to the path of celestial pleasures. The moral tenor can be explained from the fact that it was commissioned by Giovanni Giorgio Aldobrandini, the brother of Cardinal Ippolito Aldrobrandini, whose service Mazzocchi had entered, probably in 1621. There are reasons to believe, though, that the Cardinal himself was the man who was really responsible for the commission.
At the time Mazzocchi was a highly respected composer. He was born in Civita Castellana where he studied at the seminary. He took lower orders in 1606 and was ordained priest in 1619. In 1614 he had settled in Rome where he obtained the right of citizenship. At the same time his brother Virgilio worked in Rome as a composer of sacred and secular vocal music. In several ways their careers were intertwined.
La Catena d'Adone is in a prologue and five acts. Every act ends with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds. There are no instrumental movements; in this performance the prologue and acts 2 to 5 begin with a Sinfonia by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, one of the most celebrated theorbo players of that time in Rome. The Sinfonias are taken from his only collection of instrumental music for other instruments than his own, the Libro I di sinfonie a 4 of 1615. The only instrumental passages in the opera itself are some ritornelli. A variety of basso continuo instruments has been brought together and these are allocated to the various protagonists according to their character. Apart from common instruments like the theorbo, the archlute, the harp, harpsichord and organ a brass-strung harpsichord is used as well as a spinettina and tiorbino, the latter being higher-pitched variants of the better-known spinet and theorbo respectively. The lirone was also often used at the time, which is especially suited for laments and passages of sadness.
The opera almost exclusively consists of recitatives, and reflects the ideal of recitar cantando, speechlike singing. There are some passages of a more lyrical character, though, pointing in the direction of what was to become the aria. It is not only the declamatory character of the music which allows the protagonists to express their feelings, Mazzocchi also makes use of daring harmony, uncommon intervals and chromaticism to make the various affetti come across.
Among the dramatic highlights is the confrontation between Falsirena and Adonis in Act 3. In Act 4 it is the moment when the enchantress vividly expresses her rage when she finds out that Venus is the lover of Adonis. Act 5 begins with a moment of great expression, when Adonis sings a lament about his fate: under the spell of Falsirena and far away from his lover Venus. These moments come off brilliantly in the interpretations of the two main singers. Luciana Mancini gives an outstanding rendition of the role of Falsirena. Every aspect of the text is brought out, and she completely masters the art of recitar cantando. Reinoud Van Mechelen is excellent in his portrayal of Adonis, and the performance of the lament at the beginning of Act 5 is very moving. The other singers are no less impressive, especially Marie de Roy in the important role of Idonia and Olivier Berten as Oraspe. Nicolas Achten sings Arsete well, but in the small role of Pluto I would have preferred a real bass instead of Achten's light baritone. The playing of the instrumentalists is of the highest order, and they eloquently underline the emotional and dramatic keypoints in the opera.
The booklets of this label always look nice. This one is a little sloppy: Arsete is printed as Areste in the track-list and on the back of the case. There are several printing errors, and the English translation of Achten's (excellent) liner-notes should have been edited more carefully. The booklet includes French and English translations of the libretto, but unfortunately these are not fully synchronized. As a result often the Italian text is at the top of one page and the English translation at the bottom. That makes it hard to follow the original and the translation simultaneously, which is especially important to an understanding of the connection between text and music. This layout is not very user-friendly.
That said, this is a very important production. It is important from a historical perspective as it brings to us the first opera ever performed in Rome. Musically it is impressive because of the high quality of Mazzocchi's music which testifies to his stature as one of the most important composers of his time. Last but not least the standard of the performances is very high, without any real weak moments. If you like 17th-century operas, don't miss this one. It will be a jewel in your collection.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

La catena d'Adone by Domenico Mazzocchi
Conductor:  Nicolas Achten
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Scherzi Musicali

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