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Francesco CAVALLI (1602–1676)
Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne (1640) [144.48]
Apollo/Titone – Mario Zeffiri (tenor)
Dafne – Marianna Pizzolato (mezzo)
Aurora/Vener/Itaton – Marisa Martins (mezzo)
Cefalo/Pan – Agustin Prunell-Friend (tenor)
Filena/Procri 1st Musa – Assumpta Mateu (soprano)
Alfesibeo/Peneo/Sonno/2nd Pastore – Carlo Lepore (bass)
Cirilla/Morfeo/1st Pastore – Jose Ferrero (tenor)
Amore – Soledad Cardoso(soprano)
Giove/Panto – Ugo Guagliardo (bass)
2nd Musa/1st Ninfa – Fabiola Masino (soprano)
3rd Musa/2nd Ninfa – Luisa Maesso (mezzo)
Orquesta Joven de la Sinfonica de Galicia/Alberto Zedda
rec. May 2004, Teatro Rosalia Castro, La Coruña, Spain. DDD
NAXOS 8.660187-88 [74.37 + 70.11]
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If you bring together a Spanish youth orchestra, a cast of young Spanish and Italian opera singers and a distinguished editor of Rossini’s music then a recording of Cavalli’s second opera would not be the most obvious outcome. But this live recording from the 2004 Festival Mozart at La Coruña has done just that.

The opera is Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne, which was Cavalli’s first collaboration with Busanello, the librettist of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Gli amori was first performed in 1640 at the Teatro S. Cassiano in Venice. The plot is the usual rather free mixture of mix-ups between gods and goddesses. The main thread running through the opera is Apollo’s pursuit of Dafne. But along the way we encounter Titone - immortal but no longer young - and his youthful wife Aurora, who is cheating on him with Cefalo, whose wife Procri is distraught. Venus, in her turn, is upset by Apollo and Jove suggests using Amore to remedy things; this is the main engine for the Apollo/Dafne plot. In amongst these are the comic moments, mainly relating to the old lady, Cirilla, who is played by a high tenor (Jose Ferrero).

The opera’s music only survives in a single manuscript, which seems to be lacking four scenes, two each from the ends of Act 1 and of Act 2. But editor Federico Agostinelli, in his illuminating note, suggests that these final scenes may perhaps have not been set. We have no way of knowing, but the opera works as it stands.

In common with most operas of the period, in the manuscript the vocal lines are notated with just a bass line plus some figuring. Instrumental lines are specified just for the ritornelli, sinfonias and balli. Some commentators suggest that in the commercial theatre of Cavalli’s day, this apparently bare instrumentation reflected the small scale of the performances. That the grandiose instrumental ensembles of such operas as Orfeo reflect the deep pockets of the aristocratic patrons. Agostinelli belongs to the other camp and his edition of the opera includes additional instrumental lines. This is perhaps sensible as it enables the work to be performed in larger theatres by more traditional ensembles.

Zedda has taken this to its logical conclusion and produced a performance perfectly tailored to his essentially non-period forces. It is inevitable that compromises must be reached when performing 17th century opera in the atmosphere of a 19th century opera house, but in recent years great strides have been made in bridging the gap. ENO’s recent performances of Orfeo were notable in this respect.

Zedda defends his decisions in a slightly combative essay entitled The Musical Baroque: Beyond Historicism. But perhaps the best way to judge his editorial decisions and the resulting performance is with our ears.

From the opening sinfonia, the Orquesta Joven de la Sinfonica de Galicia sounds remarkably well upholstered. Also the rich string section plays very definitely with bows on strings, so the resulting sound is rather 19th century. After a number of listenings, I realised what the sound-world of this disc reminded me of – Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. The singers are accompanied by a lively and accomplished continuo group but in the arias and little melodic flowerings, we get attractive instrumental additions.

The result is undoubtedly attractive and the orchestra plays well, provided you don’t mind hearing Cavalli filtered through more recent ears.

The singers all belong to the generation that seems to be relatively comfortable flitting between baroque music and more modern opera. But the careers of Mario Zeffiri (Apollo) and Marianna Pizzolato (Dafne) seem to be very strongly centred on 19th century opera. Their performances here are dramatic and accomplished. They are adept at suitable ornamentation and they make much of Cavalli’s ariosi and declamati, but to my ears it all sounds filtered through 19th century sensibility. This is emphasised by the way that most singers utilise vibrato and their way with phrasing. The openness of their vocal projection and their way of shaping the music seem to owe something to later performance practice.

Perhaps this is inevitable in a performance that has been adjusted to allow it to be performed in an ordinary opera house. I have no problems with this and welcome the way traditional theatres are expanding their repertoire. There is also the added issue here, that the orchestra is a training institution and these performances enabled them to experience the 17th century operatic repertoire. It is just that I am not completely convinced that this is a desirable source of a recording.

For me the most problematical aspect of the entire project is Mario Zeffiri’s voice. He sings with a forward, bright tenor. The part of Apollo lies quite high and the result is at times rather edgy, over-bright and over-projected. It reminded me of some old LPs I have of Nicolai Gedda singing early Italian Baroque arias. You admire the technique but feel that something is amiss.

If this feeling of a 17th century opera filtered through 19th century sensibility does not bother you, then there is much to enjoy here. Act 1 finished with a glorious lament for Procri (Assumpta Mateu) as she bewails her husband’s infidelity. This is the sort of thing that Cavalli does well, the long flexible structures full of melodic flowerings. They are a long way from the more formalised operatic structures of the later 17th and 18th centuries.

But all is not gloom of course. Jose Ferrero copes well with the comic role of Cirilla and Amore (Soledad Cardoso) has a delightful dance-based number in Act 2. The young cast are very hard working, many singing multiple roles, and within the parameters which the performance sets itself, all the singers are successful.  Zeffiri and Pizzolato get the most extended dramatic opportunities and they make the most of them, breathing life into the dramatic structures of Cavalli and Busanello.

This is a welcome opportunity to hear one of Cavalli’s earliest operas. As you would expect with Zedda at the helm, the performance has good dramatic pacing, though there are times when things get a little too well upholstered and comfortable. But don’t listen if you dislike the idea of Cavalli filtered through a 19th century sensibility.

Robert Hugill

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