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Antonio DE LITERES (1673-1747)
Los Elementos, Opera armonica al estilo Ytaliano
Marta Almajano (El Ayre, La Aurora), Anne Grimm (El Agua), soprano; Lola Casariego (La Tierra), Xenia Meijer (El Fuego), mezzo; Carlos Mena, alto; Jordi Ricart (El Tiempo), baritone
Al Ayre Español/Eduardo López Banzo
rec. July 1997, Les Hospices, Beaune, France. DDD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 74321 935502 [60:53]

In the first decades of the 17th century the Italian style quickly spread throughout Europe. Very few countries escape some Italian influence. But on the Iberian peninsula their own traditions were deeply ingrained more so than almost anywhere else in Europe. It was only around 1700 that the Italian style gained ground there and the main reasons for this were of a political nature.

Charles II, the last Habsburg monarch to occupy the Spanish throne, died in 1700. He had chosen Philip, Duke of Anjou, as his successor. As King Philip V he was the first member of the Bourbon dynasty on the Spanish throne. He forced the royal orchestra to accept a large number of Italian musicians into its ranks, and to play a lot of Italian music. But Philip's accession to the throne caused the War of the Spanish Succession (1700 - 1713), and he had to invest huge sums of money in the war. As a result the salaries of the members of the court orchestra were heavily cut, and the musicians were forced to look for additional sources of income. They started to play for the aristocracy, whose taste was strongly influenced by the Italian style. One of the results was the development of Italian-style opera in Spain.

Antonio de Literes was amongst the leading Spanish composers of the time. Born on the island of Mallorca, he was trained as cellist and composer in Madrid, and joined the royal orchestra in 1693. Soon thereafter he was appointed first cellist, then conductor of the orchestra and director of music at the Court. In this position the developments which took place under the reign of Philip V had a direct influence on his activities. He took the chance to compose two operas, 'Los Elementos' and 'Dido y Eneas'. As the subtitle of 'Los Elementos' - 'opera armonica en estilo ytaliano' - suggests, this opera was modelled after Italian examples, but he mixed them with elements from the Spanish tradition of writing for the stage. One of these elements was the casting of all roles for women, which was the usual thing to do in stage music, in particular if performed at the Royal Court. In this opera just one tenor is needed in the choruses. Here that part is taken by a 'counter-tenor', which in this case means a male alto. It is a little surprising that one of the characters in the opera is sung here by a baritone, whose part I suppose is transposed up an octave. The booklet doesn't explain this decision, which is regrettable in the light of the tradition.

Despite its subtitle 'Los Elementos' isn't a real opera; it doesn't contain any action. It is a kind of serenade, which describes the verbal competition between the four elements: air (El Ayre), earth (La Tierra), water (El Agua) and fire (El Fuego). In the first part they describe their own character and influence on what is going on in the world. This leads to a fierce debate: "Angrily they rage and thunder, the opposing elements. But so equally matched are they that the clamour becomes a concert. Rhythmically do they struggle, but the sounds are contradictory: harsh blows are heard, but sweetly do they echo back." It is time (El Tiempo), who intervenes angrily: "Despite intense fatigue, illusion, horror and dread, with such confused sounds you try to disturb my rest!". He then states that whatever they do, time is immune from their pressures: "Time lasts for ever". And then he announces the birth of a new day: "Happily doth Aurora, precursor of the sun, announce the coming light, erasing the dark of the night." The piece ends with a hymn to the day and to the sun.

In this piece the Italian element is represented by the recitative ('recitado') and aria ('arieta'). Most of the arias have a da capo structure. The Spanish element is the verse and refrain ('estribillo' and 'copla'), which appears twice in 'Los Elementos'. There are some striking text illustrations, like the melismas on "trinan", depicting the chirrup of the birds, and the ascending motif of the cello, illustrating the rising of the sun in Time's aria 'Risueña el auroro'. The ensemble 'Y en tan triste', which complains about the absence of the sun, contains some striking sighing figures. There are sharp dissonances in Time's estribillo 'Y pues que nada sirve', on the words "todo fallece" (everything fails and dies) and in the trio 'Iras fatalas' on the words "los torpes movimientos destemplados" (the clumsy and discordant movements). In 'Suenen los clarinos' (let the trumpets ring out), both soprano (El Agua) and the violins illustrate the sound of trumpets.

Another striking feature of this 'opera' is the often quick sequence of various rhythms, which are here brilliantly realised. It is partly due to this aspect that this recording is pretty exciting. Another reason for wholeheartedly recommending this disc is the performances of the soloists, which are without exception excellent. It seems to me a lot of thought has been given to the casting. Xenia Meijer's voice, for instance, is more suited to the role of El Fuego than to that of La Tierra, which is taken by Lola Casariego. The instrumental ensemble is small, with just two violins and basso continuo. In some passages there is an additional violin and a viola da gamba. There are also castanets, mainly in tutti passages. In the basso continuo the harpsichord and organ are supported by cello, double bass, theorbo and two guitars. Their role is not restricted to harmony; they also act as a 'rhythm section' and the players do a very fine job in both capacities.

It wasn't the first time I heard this recording: I had it on my shelf already. But this reissue was a good reason to listen to it again. I enjoyed it just as much as the first time I heard it. In particular at a budget price this is a disc not to be missed.

Johan van Veen



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