Notes and Editorial Reviews
Atalante was founded in 2007 by Erin Headley. Their first disc was devoted to laments of four ladies: Helen of Troy, Queen Artemisia, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, and was reviewed here. For this second disc Headley has turned her attention to the genre of the oratorio which was of great importance in Italy and specifically in Rome during the 17th century.
Although Giacomo Carissimi can't be considered its inventor, he was the main contributor to the genre in the mid-17th century. It didn't take long for the oratorio to become very popular. On the one hand it was a tool in the hands of the Counter Reformation to spread its message, on the other it was an alternative to opera, a genre which didn't go down that well with the ecclesiastical authorities. Oratorios had different subjects, but were quite dramatic. Whereas Carissimi's oratorios were largely directed towards a sophisticated audience who knew Latin, the oratorio is in Italian and aimed at a wider audience.
Marco Marazzoli was from Parma and was ordained a priest, probably in 1625. The next year he moved to Rome. It is suggested he was taken there by Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini, who returned from Parma to Rome in November of that year. For the largest part of his career he was at the service of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a member of a family which played an important role in the church. It gave him the opportunity to compose operas, first in Rome but later also in Ferrara and Venice. From 1643 to 1645 he stayed in Paris, composing and performing cantatas and ballets. After his return to Rome he found the Barberini family in exile, and that is when he started to compose oratorios, both in Latin and in Italian. The
Oratorio di Santa Caterina was probably his last contribution to the genre, according to Erin Headley dating from around 1660.
The story revolves around St Catherine, daughter of King Costus of Alexandria. After she inherited her father's lands the Roman emperor Maxentius came to Alexandria to perform a great ceremony for his gods. According to tradition he fell in love with her, and asked her to become a lady at his court, only second to his wife. Being a devout Christian she refused. Under the threat of torture the emperor wanted to force her to renounce her faith. She refused firmly, and paid for that with her life. The libretto was written by Lelio Orsini, one of the most eminent librettists in Rome. As was customary the oratorio is split into two parts, each concluded with a five-part chorus, called
madrigale. The story of an oratorio was always told by a
testo, comparable with the Evangelist in 18th-century German oratorio passions. His role - here performed by a soprano - is rather limited, for instance in comparison with the oratorios of Carissimi. The core of the work is the dialogue between St Catherine and the emperor, who here bears the name of Massimo.
The opposition between the two characters is quite dramatic, firstly because of their dialogue in the form of recitatives, but also because of the different kinds of music they have to sing. Massimo is rude, using his power to force his will upon St Catherine and not able to deal with her steadfastness. St Catherine, on the other hand, is unflappable and answers every move of the emperor by emphasizing her trust in God. In her last aria she speaks to Jesus as "caro sposo e Redentore" - dear spouse and Redeemer. The contrast is underlined by the scoring of the basso continuo: in the recitatives St Catherine is mostly supported by the harp, whereas Massimo is accompanied by the more penetrating sounds of the harpsichord.
The largest part of the work consists of recitatives, but they are interrupted by mostly rather short, but highly expressive arias. In particular the arias of St Catherine are moving, like the one I have already referred to, but also 'Deh' non più', early in the second part and 'Alme temete' at the end of part one. The closing episode of the first part is especially interesting because of the use of
bassi ostinati. That was a common habit at the time, but here it is also related to the content of the oratorio, and in particular the character of St Catherine. The main feature of a
basso ostinato is the repetition of the same pattern, and in this case this can be interpreted as an expression of St Catherine's perseverance. Her stance is supported by Speranza (Hope) and Fede (Faith).
"What motivated us to revive the oratorio was the moving soldier's lament with lirone accompaniment", Erin Headley writes in the booklet. That lament is in the second part, just before St Catherine is going to die. After her death it is the same soldier who expresses the moral message of this oratorio: "He who does not possess heaven possesses nothing", which is then repeated in the
madrigale à 5 which closes the oratorio.
The main roles are taken by Katherine Watson and Christian Immler. The former is certainly not chosen because of her Christian name. She turns out to be an excellent choice because of her vocal qualities. She portrays St Catherine perfectly, with an impressive account of the recitatives in truly speechlike manner. The beauty and sweetness of her voice is suitable for her arias whose expressive character is fully explored. Christian Immler is very convincing as emperor Massimo, and one can hear his increasing anger about St Catherine's uncompromising stance. The smaller roles of the soldiers, the
testo and Faith and Hope are appropriately sung. Juan Sancho is particularly good in the above-mentioned lament with lirone. One probably has to get used to the frequent shifts from falsetto into chest register by Steve Dugardin. In earlier years I have heard him doing this with more ease. I wonder whether a high tenor - like the French hautecontre - would have been a better choice.
Also inspired by the lirone is the extract from
Caino e Abele, an oratorio by Bernardo Pasquini. We hear the lament of Cain after he has been banished by God for murdering Abel: "Where, alas, can I hide (...), wretched and abhorred by the world, hateful to the heavens?" In a way I am disappointed by this choice: this oratorio is only available in a recording from 1990 which was recently reissued. In my review I commented on a lack of drama and the omission of the lirone in the
lira (da gamba) part. The extract on this disc means that we can forget seeing Atalante recording the complete oratorio. That said, Emily Van Evera sings the part of Cain very well.
It rounds off another very fine disc by this ensemble. The repertoire of vocal music of a dramatic character of the mid-17th century in Rome is voluminous. It will probably be more difficult to make a choice than to find music to perform. The quality of the Roman music of this time and the standard of the performances make me look forward to upcoming projects from Atalante.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International