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
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
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
Johan van Veen