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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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