Holy Week is one of the most important moments in the Christian church. Since early times there has been a large repertoire for this purpose. Part of this included settings of the biblical narration of Jesus' passion and death. Most Passions of the baroque era which are performed today are written by German Protestant composers. Until now very few Passions by Italian composers have come to light. The best-known is the St John Passion by Alessandro Scarlatti which was recorded by René Jacobs and an ensemble of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (deutsche harmonia mundi). More recently another St John Passion was discovered, composed by Francesco Feo (review
). The present disc brings a third Passion, remarkably again on the text of the gospel of St John and written by Carlo Sturla.
Next to nothing is known about this composer who has no entry in New Grove
. The dates of his birth and death are unknown, and as he worked all his life in Genoa it is assumed he was also born there. It is known that he was active as a musician in both the music theatre and in the church. There is historical evidence that he worked as singing teacher in the women's Convent of Santa Brigida which belonged to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. That may well explain the scoring of this Passion which is for women's voices alone.
The Passio di Venerdì Santo
is a remarkable work in several ways. The text is restricted to St John's narrative in his gospel; there are no free poetic texts. The part of the 'Evangelist' is called cantus firmus
and scored for solo voice and basso continuo. It not only contains the narrative but also the words of Jesus. In this recording the narrative is supported by the organ alone, whereas the words of Jesus are singled out by a larger scoring of the basso continuo. Interestingly instead of using the form of the recitative for the cantus firmus
Sturla rather makes use of the style of plainchant. Without the basso continuo one would never guess that this work had been written in the 18th century.
The parts of the three other characters in the Gospel (the soliloquentes
) - Pilate, Petre and the maid - and the turbae
are quite different, though. They have a strongly operatic character. The words of the soliloquentes
are purely operatic arias, with several repetitions of words and phrases, and ending with a cadenza. The striking contrast between these operatic parts and the sober setting of the narration makes this work all the more remarkable. Another notable aspect of this Passion is the fact that it ends with the scene of the soldiers dicing for Jesus' coat. The last section is a chorus of the soldiers: "Let us not rend it, but cast lots to settle who shall have it". Jesus' words at the cross and his death are not set by Sturla.
Luca Franco Ferrari opts for a small ensemble, and that is certainly right. The narration is sung by Emanuela Esposito, and her performance is impressive. As I have already written she also sings the words of Jesus. Problem is that these are set at a lower pitch than the words of the Evangelist. It would have been an option to allocate them to a different singer, but apparently in order to stick to what was common practice Ferrari decided to use the same singer. Although it is obvious that Ms Esposito is less comfortable in this range, she manages to sing the part remarkably well. The arias - as the solos of the soliloquentes
are called - are sung by the soprano Laura Dalfino and the contralto Marina Frandi. They bring fine performances, although now and then I noticed some insecurities in the intonation. The turbae
are brilliantly sung, with great dramatic flair, by three sopranos and three contraltos.
In the basso continuo we hear, apart from the organ, a harp, a theorbo or a guitar, a cello and a violone. The decision to set the words of Jesus apart through a change of scoring of the basso continuo is quite effective.
All in all, I am impressed by this unknown Passion, which fully deserves being made available on disc. If you are looking for something different to listen to during Passiontime, this is it.
Johan van Veen