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Emilio de CAVALIERI (c1550 - 1602)
Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo
Christina Roterberg (soprano) - Angelo Custode; Marie-Claude Chappuis - Anima; Luciana Mancini (mezzo) - Vita mondana; Kyungho Kim - Primo Compagno di Piacere; Mark Milhofer (tenor) - Intelletto, Piacere; Marcos Fink - Anima dannata, Mondo, Secondo Compagno di Piacere; Guyla Orendt - Consiglio, Tempo; Johannes Weisser (baritone) - Corpo
Choir of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Concerto Vocale
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902200.01 [38:17 + 54:35]

The present production brings us to the year 1600. It had been declared a Holy Year and many religious and artistic activities took place in Rome to express the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. It was also the year Emilio de Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo was first performed. This event took place in February in the Oratorio della Vallicella, the headquarters of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio. This order had been founded in 1575 by Filippo Neri and was one of the main supporters of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

The Rappresentatione fits into the tradition of the morality play which goes back to the Middle Ages. It is about an allegorical character who has to choose which path in life to follow. During the 17th and 18th centuries many works of this kind were written. Among the best-known is Handel's oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. A late example is Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots whose first act was composed by Mozart.

The Rappresentatione is divided into three acts. The first is devoted to a dialogue between Soul and Body, which represent two sides of the same character. In the second act several allegorical figures enter the deliberations. The Body is especially attracted to the exposition of the delights of worldly life by Piacere (Pleasure) and two companions. Soul turns to Cielo (Heaven) who answers in form of an echo that the wise man should fly worldly pleasures; he who doesn't will die. Then Mondo (World) and Vita Mondana (Worldly Life) present themselves as glittering figures until Angelo Custode (the Guardian Angel) undresses them and reveals that they are skeletons, symbols of death. Intelletto (Intellect) and Consiglio (Counsel) recommend choosing the path to heaven. In the third act life in Hell is described in drastic pictures through the testimonies of the Damned Souls. Their fate is juxtaposed with that of the Blessed Souls in Heaven. As Soul decides to follow the path to Heaven the choir sings a song of praise: "Let every tongue, every heart sing praises to my Lord". The work ends with a festa, a celebration in which all people are urged to rejoice with voices and instruments: "With songs and smiles give answer to Paradise!"

One of the objectives of Neri's congregation was to make the message of the gospel understandable for uneducated people, meaning anyone who did not understand Latin, the language of the Church. This objective finds its expression in the character of the Rappresentatione. The libretto was written by Agostino Manni, who maintained close relations with the congregation and was a student of Neri. The latter had taught him the principles of classical rhetoric. One of these was docere, to teach. This comes especially to the fore in the use of the vernacular. Another principle was movere: the orator should stir the emotions of his audience. To that end Manni chose the form of a dialogue, and a sharp contrast between opposing characters: Good vs Evil, Body vs Soul, the Blessed Souls in Heaven vs the Damned Souls in Hell. The tenor of a work like this explains why these characters are black and white; there is no place for shades within the individual characters.

Cavalieri concurs with these principles in the way he set the libretto to music and in his performance instructions. The dialogues take the form of recitatives which are required to be sung according to the principle of recitar cantando, speechlike singing. This guaranteed that the text was communicated to the audience as clearly as possible. Cavalieri also urged the singers not to add any ornamentation. That could damage the delivery, and also could be misused by singers to draw attention to themselves and their skills. There is one exception: Cavalieri has written out coloratura for the Blessed Souls in Heaven. That can be interpreted as another token of the use of rhetoric: this way these characters are singled out as they represent what the Rappresentatione is all about.

The dialogues between the characters are interrupted by choruses which reflect on the thoughts of the various protagonists, very much in the style of the chorus in classical theatre. These choruses are all homophonic, again in order to make the text clearly audible. In order to maximize the impact of the message Cavalieri wanted his work to be staged, as was the case in the performance of 1600. In his preface the composer gives detailed instructions as to what a staging should look like. This aspect has been the reason some musicologists have labelled this work as the first opera in history. However, considering its spiritual content it is probably more correct to call it a 'sacred drama'.

The score leaves the interpreters considerable freedom. That goes in particular for the use of instruments. Cavalieri urges that the ritornelli and sinfonias are performed with a large number of instruments, but doesn't specify which. René Jacobs was guided mainly by a treatise by the composer Agostino Agazzari of 1607, whereas Christina Pluhar in her recording (Alpha, 2004) turned to the orchestration of La pellegrina, a play with music which Cavalieri had put together in Florence in 1589 on the occasion of the wedding of Ferdinando de' Medici and Christine of Lorraine. There is not much difference as far as the basso continuo groups are concerned. This is in contrast to the ensemble of melody instruments, where the present recording includes recorders which don't appear in Pluhar's recording. Jacobs uses four violins and four violas; Pluhar has just one violin and no violas.

Another issue is the number of singers involved. Cavalieri recommends one voice per part for the choruses, or - if the stage is large enough - two per part. The latter seems to suggest that he wanted the choruses to have a strong presence. As he wanted the work to be staged it seems impossible for the soloists also to sing the choruses. Jacobs uses a vocal ensemble, the Staatsopernchor Berlin, of thirteen voices; Pluhar's ensemble is slightly smaller with ten singers.

Jacobs is known for taking considerable liberties in his treatment of scores. He often suggests that his decisions are in line with what the sources say but they often seem rather inspired by his personal preferences. Fortunately he behaves very well here. His choices in the vocal and instrumental scoring are certainly legitimate from a historical point of view. He often works with singers whose singing is at odds with performance practice of the baroque era. That is not the case here. There is a bit too much vibrato here and there but all in all from a dramatic point of view and stylistically the cast is outstanding. The Staatsopernchor does not specialise in early music, and it is especially here that the vibrato makes itself felt in that the choruses are not as transparent as one would wish.

There are a couple of points where Jacobs takes decisions which seem hardly justifiable. The Rappresentatione opens with a chorus; it has no overture. In this recording the chorus is preceded by a sinfonia, and here Jacobs turned to a collection of music by the German composer Johann Hermann Schein from 1617. Elsewhere another instrumental piece from the same collection is used as well as pieces by Alfonso Ferrabosco. Cavalieri suggests the inclusion of sinfonias, but I wonder whether they can be added at random, even in the middle of an act, such as here in act 3. However, the use of music which is younger than the date of the original performance is quite odd. The festa comprises six stanzas; only four of them are printed in the booklet. The score says that these should be sung by all performers together. However, that is only the case here with the first and the last; the others are sung by either five solo voices and some lines by a single voice with instruments. The strangest decision is that the closing stanza is followed by an instrumental improvisation over a pedal point which takes about two minutes. The impact of the last stanza - followed in the score by the word "Laus Deo" - is seriously damaged by this decision.

It is not easy to translate music for the stage to CD. Obviously many aspects of a staged performance are lost. That said, Jacobs, his singers and players and, not to forget, the recording team have done an admirable job bringing this piece to life in this production. Christine Pluhar's recording is fine; so is Jacobs', and I don't want to declare one of them the winner. You can hardly go wrong with either of them.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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