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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Il martirio di Santa Cecilia - oratorio in 2 parts (1708)
Nancy Argenta (soprano); Marinella Pennicchi (soprano); Bernhard Landauer (alto); Marco Beasley (tenor)
I Barocchisti/Diego Fasolis
rec. 4 July 2000, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland DDD
CPO 7772582 [51:34 + 57:15]
Experience Classicsonline

During Lent of 1708 Cardinal Ottoboni had planned a series of oratorio performances. The first in the series was the oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti which is recorded here, the last Handel's oratorio 'La Resurrezione'. The latter work is well-known and is regularly performed and available in several recordings. But for a long time Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio was thought to have been lost. In fact it survived in a private collection but was only discovered fairly recently.

The Cardinal had invited Scarlatti to write this oratorio on a text which he had written himself. As a result the score of 'Il martirio di Santa Cecilia' became part of his private library. In 1742 this part of Ottoboni's legacy was sold to England where it came into the hands of Charles Jennens, the writer of the libretto of Handel's Messiah. It seems Handel once borrowed a number of scores from Jennens, who expected Handel to 'steal' from them for his own compositions. Handel knew very well about the quality of Scarlatti's oratorio as he attended the first performance in Rome in March 1708.

This oratorio is the last in a series which Karl Böhmer, in his programme notes, calls a 'black series' as Scarlatti had written two other oratorios with tragic subjects in the previous years: 'Sedecia, re di Gerusalemme' (1705) and 'Cain overo Il primo omicidio' (1707). He sees a connection with the political situation as Rome was in the middle of the War of the Spanish Succession which had started in 1701 and ended with the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. Scarlatti himself had felt the effects of the war as he and his family left Naples to seek refuge in Rome.

It is not quite clear how this oratorio has been performed. In general oratorios were not staged, but the score contains several directions which suggest a scenic performance. In any case these directions are a clear indication of the dramatic character of the oratorio. And the subject gives every reason for this. 'Il martirio di Santa Cecilia' (The Martyrdom of St Cecilia) is called a 'tragedy', and the content is indeed rather gloomy. Cecilia was a well-known figure: she was the patron saint of musicians and in her honour St Cecilia's day was celebrated every year. But in this oratorio there is no reference whatsoever to music: the story ends in bloodshed as Cecilia is decapitated. The full title of the oratorio is 'Il martirio di Santa Cecilia overo L'Almachio'. Almachius is the judge who is supposed to sentence Cecilia to death, but tries to save her as he has fallen in love with her. In between them are Cecilia's nurse who tries to convince her to renounce her faith, and the Counsellor of Almachius who expresses the view that Cecilia's faith can hardly be a threat to the Roman empire and that even adding the 'Christian God' to the list of gods venerated in Rome wouldn't really do any harm.

But Cecilia refuses firmly to renounce her faith, and when the judge continues to waver he is taken off the case by the emperor who sends an executioner to take Cecilia's life. He tries to decapitate her but bungles the job and leaves her bleeding to death. When her horrified nurse tells Almachius what has happened he loses his mind. The oratorio ends with the nurse and the counsellor singing a duet in which they express their wish to know whether Cecilia's God is real: "If he's the true deity/If he's the true God, let Him show me His light/let Him discover to desire".

Scarlatti's oratorio explores the dramatic character of the libretto to the full. Among the highlights are the scene where Cecilia prays to God when her life is taken and the episode when Almachius is veering into insanity. In some arias Scarlatti makes use of the form of the 'concitato', the kind of text expression which Monteverdi famously used in his 'Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda'. There are a number of passages in which the text is effectively translated into music. The orchestra is also used to express the oratorio's content. It is scored for strings with oboe and b.c. In some arias two trumpets join the orchestra, especially when the text refers to heaven. That happens in Almachius' aria in the first part where he sings: "I hear the heavenly spheres, how they condemn me for vile cowardice". At the end of the recitative which precedes the closing duet the nurse says of Cecilia's last moments: "I myself heard, alternating with celestial choirs, always resounding with pleasant, powerful strength: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" On the words 'Gesù, Gesù, Gesù!' the trumpets enter again.

Considering the high quality of this oratorio it is surprising that it has taken eight years before this recoridng’s release on disc. In 2000 it was given its first performance in modern times under the baton of Diego Fasolis. The data in the tray insert indicates that this recording was made in just one day which suggests a live recording, but the booklet notes seem to indicate a studio performance. A short while after this performance Gérard Lesne with his ensemble Il Seminario Musicale also performed it live in Paris. I can't remember ever having heard that, but on the basis of the Lesne recordings and performances I have heard it is likely to have been a very good one. Probably better than what we get here.

Don't get me wrong: this performance isn't bad at all. In fact, the roles are generally sung well. In particular Nancy Argenta gives a very good account of the role of Cecilia, and the way she sings the scene where she is killed is very moving. She uses too much vibrato, but it isn't as bad as in some other recordings I have heard. Marinella Pennicchi's performance as Cecilia's nurse didn't win me over immediately, but after a while I got used to her voice and she started to bring her role to life. The same is true for Bernhard Landauer: at first I found his voice too weak, but as the recording progresses he creates a stronger profile of Almachius. Even so I think a more dramatic approach to this part would have been appropriate. Marco Beasly, who sings the role of the counsellor, has a pleasant voice, but it is too soft-grained for this kind of repertoire. Some of his arias come off well, but in the more dramatic passages, where Scarlatti makes use of the concitato, he lacks power and bite.

One of the positive aspects of this recording is the interaction between the protagonists which make those recitatives where a dialogue between the protagonists takes place mostly quite dramatic. But there are also some long recitatives where only one of the characters is acting, and these tend to drag. The orchestra's performances are overall quite good, but I sometimes noted a lack of drama as well.

There is no reason to avoid this recording, especially as it is the first and only recording available of this oratorio. The work itself is a splendid and exciting addition to the catalogue of Alessandro Scarlatti's oeuvre. But although this performance gives a fairly good account of its quality, it doesn't fully explore its dramatic power. It would be nice if Gérard Lesne or someone else would essay a recording which does just that.

Johan van Veen


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