Notes and Editorial Reviews
Certain episodes from the Bible have been the subject of compositions. One of them is the lament of King David over his son Absalom whose revolt against his father ended in his death. It was set to music by various composers of the renaissance, for instance Nicolas Gombert, Josquin Desprez, Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins. It is remarkable that the story was the subject of very few oratorios. On the internet I found a site which mentions an oratorio by Gregor Joseph Werner from 1743. In 2009 CPO released a recording of the oratorio Der liebreiche und geduldige David by Johann Mattheson from 1724 which focuses on the role of David in the revolt and ensuing civil war. Absalom himself doesn't figure in the piece. Things are different in the oratorio L'Assalone by Giovanni Paolo Colonna.
Colonna is one of the lesser-known composers from 17th-century Italy; he was born and died in Bologna. The son of an organ builder, he was educated as such. He developed into an expert in organ construction. After initial studies in Bologna he went to Rome where he became a pupil of Orazio Benevoli and Giacomo Carissimi. After his return to Bologna he was active as a composer and became second organist of the basilica of San Petronio. From 1662 until his death he was maestro di cappella here. He held the same position in two other churches for some years. His extant oeuvre is not that large, compared to the output of some other composers of his time. The genre which interests us here, the oratorio, is substantially represented in his oeuvre. His work-list includes fourteen oratorios; eight of which have survived. These are either about biblical figures or about the life of a saint, such as St Anthony of Padua. Among the first category are oratorios about Moses, Solomon and the prophet Elisha.
The majority of his oratorios were composed for Francesco II d'Este in Ferrara between 1680 and 1694, and that includes L'Assalone. Italian oratorios in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were often performed during Lent, and ended with a reference to the Passion of Christ. The present oratorio falls into another category: "[A] form of specifically-targeted political propaganda (...) and a devout meditation on monarchy (institution illustrated and legitimized by the King of Heaven)", as Francesco Lora writes in the liner-notes. "In many oratorio librettos, the monarch and spectator (who was also the patron and dedicatee) was actually confronted with the perils of his role, the faults of his predecessors, the renunciation of his personal freedom, and the momentousness of his office, over which God's will and Christ's model loomed. So while operas were often an instrument of applause, oratorios were often an instrument of admonition".
The choice of subject is especially interesting here as Francesco II d'Este had a rather troublesome relationship with his mother. He became Duke at the age of two, with his mother Laura Martinozzi as his regent. However, when he was fourteen he took the reins and his mother retreated to her native Rome. Lora characterises their relationship as one of love and hate and adds that the similarity with the relationship between Absalom and David was quite obvious. It is hard to believe that this would have escaped Francesco. Even so, the oratorio was performed in 1684, at the tenth anniversary of his seizure of power.
The scoring is for five voices and instruments. In this case the five singers take six roles: the alto has two, Achitofel and Joab. The instrumental ensemble is also in five parts. Whereas Colonna mostly writes for two violins, two violas and bc, here the violas are omitted. The violone has its own part, and Colonna also adds a trumpet. The latter is used in the choruses at the beginning and end of the oratorio, and in one of the arias by Absalom. The arias are different in texture. Seven of the fourteen are strophic: the two stanzas are sung to the same music, and both are followed by a ritornello. There are also some arias with a single stanza. Some stanzas have an ABA form which points in the direction of the dacapo aria which would become the standard towards the turn of the century. Three arias are through-composed.
Two arias are especially interesting. After having heard that Absalom is dead David sings his lament. He is supported by basso continuo alone, without ritornelli from the strings. Several times he is interrupted by Joab but then returns to the opening line, which has the role of a refrain: "Caro figlio, amata prole, dove sei, chi tu rapi?" - Dear son, beloved child, where are you, who has stolen you? Only a short while earlier Absalom sang a boasting aria; after the second stanza the usual ritornello is omitted in order to mark the moment his hair gets tangled in the branches.
It is not that easy to asses the performance, as far as the dramatic aspects are concerned. That is largely due to the fact that the lyrics which can be downloaded from the Tactus site come without translations. However, it is quite clear that Laura Antonaz perfectly exposes Absalom's bragging, in the aria I just mentioned but also in the recitative at the start of the second part. Mauro Borgioni seems to give a good account of the role of David; his mournful aria is expressive but he doesn't make it too tearful. Elena Biscuola takes the role of two different characters. I have the impression she makes some distinction between them as Joab is more outspoken than the more introverted Achitofel. Alberto Allegrezza has a nice clear voice and gives a good account of the part of Consigliere. The Testo has the role of telling the story, and Elena Bertuzzi does so rather well. I am less impressed by her voice and her style of singing; she uses a little too much vibrato. Fortunately that aspect is mostly absent from the other voices. From a stylistic point of view this recording is pretty much ideal.
Colonna's music is of excellent quality, and although I sorely missed a translation of the text I very much enjoyed this oratorio. Colonna is not well represented on disc, although Tactus has some recordings of his works in its catalog. I would like to mention two productions which are well worth investigating: the oratorio Il Transito di San Gioseppe (TC 630391) and a collection of Vesper Psalms (TC 630390). The present production is a valuable addition to the small Colonna discography.
– MusicWeb International (Johan van Veen)