Pietro Metastasio is a household name to anyone who knows
something about opera, in particular opera in the 18th century.
He was the most prolific writer of opera libretti in his time,
and it will be very hard to find a composer of that time who
did not use them. Far less known is the fact that Metastasio
also wrote libretti for oratorios. One of them is La Passione
di nostro Signore Gesu Christo, which was set to music by a
number of composers, among them Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri
and Josef Mysliveček.
Mysliveček was born in Bohemia and after being trained as a master baker soon
turned to music. At first he concentrated on playing the violin,
but in November 1763 he went to Venice to take lessons from
Giovanni Battista Pescetti, especially in writing recitatives.
As a result he started to compose operas. His breakthrough as
an opera composer came when the Teatro di S. Carlo in Naples
commissioned him to write an opera. 'Il Bellerofonte' which
was first performed in January 1767. By 1770 he had come to
such fame that Leopold Mozart, travelling through Italy with
his son Wolfgang, paid him a visit, which resulted in a friendship
which lasted for a number of years. Towards the end of the 1770s
his glory faded. In addition to that his health deteriorated,
and he became increasingly socially isolated. He died in 1781
and was buried in Lucina.
Mysliveček was mainly known for his operas, but some
of his oratorios were also very popular. One of the most famous
was 'Abramo e Isacco', as Mozart reported in a letter: "all
Munich is talking about his oratorio Abramo e Isacco, which
he has produced here". It isn't known for sure when Mysliveček
wrote the Passion oratorio on Mestastasio's text - which was
written in 1730 and first set to music by Antonio Caldara -
nor when it was first performed. But it became very popular
as the numerous performances in German and Italian churches
in the 1770s and 1780s show.
The text isn't a narrative of the passion and death of
Jesus as reported in the gospels, but rather a retrospective
by his disciples and friends. In the first part Peter, who wasn't
present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, attempts to
put together the whole story by asking eye witnesses for their
accounts: John, Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea. The
second part concentrates on the expectation of Jesus's resurrection
and the fate of those who have made him suffer and die.
There is no operatic action here, but there is interaction,
in particular in the questions by Peter and the answers given
by the other protagonists. This dialogue has the form of recitatives,
mostly secco, some accompagnato. The arias are mostly of the
da capo type, and dominated by coloratura, which seem regularly
out of touch with the text of the arias. One shouldn't expect
a lot of text expression here, but rather the creation of a
plaintive mood, often more supported by the orchestral part
than the vocal line. It shows the shift in the way religious
subjects were approached in the second half of the 18th century.
I have to admit that I find this approach and its musical
effect hard to swallow. Mysliveček's music is mostly original
and effective, and it is easy to understand why he was such
a celebrated opera composer. And I sincerely hope that his operatic
output will be extensively explored in the near future. But
to me there is too large a rift between the music and the content
of the oratorio. It would have made a stronger impact if there
had been a stricter connection between text and music.
The performance is generally good, although it has some
flaws. The musically most impressive part is that of Peter,
and the performance of the male soprano Jörg Waschinski is equally
impressive. The strongly emotional character of this part is
very well realised. There are a number of male sopranos active
in the field of early music, but not every one of them is really
convincing. Often they are too much concerned about their technique,
in order to make sure they hit every high note accurately. Not
so here: Jörg Waschinski's technique is impeccable, and as a
result he can pay full attention to interpretation. In comparison
Sophie Karthäuser is a little disappointing: I sometimes feel
a lack of real commitment, and I think she uses too much vibrato.
The contralto Yvonne Berg's voice is something I have to get
used to, but her performance is alright. Andreas Karasiak has
a nice voice, but could do more with it, as his interpretation
can be a little blank. The anger expressed in the recitative
'Qual terribil vendeta', for instance, doesn't really come through.
The chorus does a good job, as does the orchestra, although
sometimes I could imagine stronger dynamic contrasts. Otherwise
the playing is energetic and colourful.
Despite its shortcomings I would recommend this recording,
as it presents an example of a genre which has been neglected
too long: the Roman-Catholic passion oratorio in the second
half of the 18th century. Spering has already recorded Salieri's
setting of the same libretto, and hopefully more settings are