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Domenico SARRO (1679-1744)
Achille in Sciro (1737)
Gabriella Martellacci (alto) – Achille
Marcello Nardis (tenor) – Licomede
Massimiliano Arizzi (soprano) – Teagene
Maria Laura Martorana (soprano) – Deidamia
Francisco Ruben Brito (tenor) – Ulisse
Eufemia Tufano (mezzo) – Nearco
Dolores Carlucci (soprano) – Arcade
Bratislava Chamber Choir
Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia/Federico Maria Sardelli
rec. live, Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Italy, July 2007
DYNAMIC CDS571/1-3 [3 CDs: 75:23 + 71:19 + 42:36]
Experience Classicsonline

Domenico Sarro is one of those composers who perhaps received an excess (in terms of the real worth of his achievement) of fame and reputation during his lifetime, but who has, rather more certainly, received far less than his due ever since. Born at Trania in Apulia, Sarro was living in Naples by the age of ten, where he studied at the conservatory of Sant’Onofrio a Capuana (the building in which Sarro would presumably have studied can still be seen near the tribunale, the Naples Hall of Justice). In Charles Burney’s The Present State of Music in France and Italy there is a delightful account of a visit he paid to Sant’Onofrio in the years just before Sarro would have been a student there (it is also well worth digging out the fascinating account in Salvatore Di Giacomo’s Quattro antichi conservatori di musica in Napoli, published in 1924). By 1706 Sarro was writing operatic works for performance in Naples, though he (and his work) fell from favour for some time after the Austrian invasion of Naples in 1707 (soon after Sarro had been appointed vicemaestro di cappella at the court. By the late 1710s he was again in a position of influence and standing, some 21 of his operas being produced between then and 1641. In 1737 he became maestro di cappella at the court, and it was in that year that Achille in Sciro was produced, the work being commissioned for performance at the inauguration of the new San Carlo Theatre.
For his commission Sarro chose to set a libretto by Metastasio, which has previously been set by Antonio Caldara and performed in 1736 in Vienna, for the marriage of Archduchess Maria Theresa to Francis Stephan of Lorraine. Metastasio’s libretto treats a story, found in the Achilleid, the witty epic written by the Latin poet Statius – himself a Neapolitan – in the first century after Christ; the story of how his mother Thetis, during Achilles’ boyhood, tried to forestall or prevent his fated death on the battlefield by taking him to the island of Scyros, dressing him as a girl and concealing him amongst the girls surrounding the beautiful Deidamia, the beautiful daughter of the island’s king, Lycomedes. Amatory confusions – unsurprisingly – ensue. Metastasio’s libretto (which is highly accomplished, like so many of those he wrote) was set by no less than 28 more composers before the Eighteenth Century was out – Sarro being relatively early in the field; something of Statius’ narrative and of later operatic treatments of it is illuminatingly discussed in P.J. Heslin’s The Transvestite Achilles (Cambridge University Press, 2005). 
Before composing his Achille in Sciro, Sarro had collaborated with Metastasio on at least one previous occasion – again in Naples, the 1724 premiere of Didone abbandonata, which was effectively Metastasio’s debut as a librettist. Sarro’s Achille in Sciro certainly deserves some renewed attention, deserves to be known by those interested in the evolution of eighteenth century opera in general, or the history of Neapolitan opera in particular. It was certainly desirable that we should have a recording of the work. The recording under review is of a performance (or performances) at the Festival della Valle d’Itria di Martina Franca. Each summer operas are performed in the Palazzo Ducale in the city of Martina Franca in Puglia. The 35th such festival will take place in the summer of 2009 and the festival has traditionally concentrated on the revival of neglected or forgotten opera. This year’s festival will include a production of Il re lear (1893) by Antonio Cagnoni; past festivals have included productions of Il re Pastore (1760) by Niccolo Piccinini (1728-1800) Pelagio (1857) by Mercadante. The venture is obviously a very worthy one – I’d certainly love to attend the festival sooner or later.
However, it has to be said that this performance of Achille in Sciro has some serious flaws. The sound quality is not of the best, even allowing for it being a live recording; there is an often disturbing volume of stage noise; tempos seem subject to sudden slumps and accelerations and the string tone is often distinctly scrawny. Nor is the singing always up to the standards which would really serve the music adequately. Among the soloists, the women do most to engage the listener and put the case for Sarro’s music. Maria Laura Martorana sings the role of Deidamia with some fluency and a fair understanding of the idiom, and her voice is by no means unpleasant; Gabriella Martellacci’s Achille is sung with a rich alto texture that could do with rather more variety but is perfectly listenable and, as Arcade, soprano Dolores Carlucci sings with an attractive sprightliness and lightness. Eufemia Tufano, as Nearco, is not especially distinguished, but she sings with accuracy and spirit, and lets no one down. The male contributors, on the other hand, are a pretty shaky bunch. Massimiliano Arizzi’s control of pitch seems frequently to desert him and the voice veers off suddenly at unexpected angles; the whole performance, sadly, lacks control and is at times almost embarrassingly bad. Hopefully this was just a bad night – in which case it is unfortunate for the singer that his performance should have been preserved for posterity. The tenor Francesco Ruben Brito is only intermittently better; he sounds like a young singer attempting a role for which he is not yet ready.
All this is regrettable, since the opera itself has some obvious qualities (without ever sounding like an undiscovered masterpiece). Deidamia has at least one powerfully passionate aria (‘on vedi, tiranno’) and a fiercely intense passage of accompanied recitative (‘’Ah perfido! Ah spergiuro!); Ulisse ‘s Act Three ‘Tornate sereni’ has some real charm; Achille has some excellent music, such as the dramatic ‘Potria fra tante pene’ and the very different, much lighter music of ‘Risponderti vorrei’. But in some of these cases, and in many other instances, one has to make the effort to listen beyond the actual performance, as it were and imagine more completely satisfying performances of Sarro’s music.
If it were judged purely on the overall quality of performance and recorded sound this would qualify for the sad icon of the thumb-down next to this review. But the music itself is of such interest, the chance to hear it so unprecedented, that I have resisted that damning gesture. If you can make allowances for some of the failings outlined above, this is worth hearing.
Glyn Pursglove


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