No expense has been spared for Cecilia Bartoli’s most recent disc of novelties, an album charting the fortunes of baroque operatic music in St Petersburg. In sumptuous book form, the illustrations are frequently all-colour with a series of short articles elucidating the Mariinsky Theatre’s collection of Italian music, the three formidable eighteenth-century Russian Empresses who presided over the court – Anna Ioannovna, Elizaveta Petrovna and Catherine II (The Great) – and an overview of opera in Russia at this period. There is also – and I note this for the purposes of helping a prospective purchaser – a two-page spread on Catherine’s so-called, probably fictitious Erotic Cabinet, complete with photograph of the ingenious object.
It was inevitable that Italian and other foreign composers should be imported to modernise and cultivate Russian taste in the new orthodoxies of the operatic form. Whilst some came and went – Galuppi, Cimarosa and Soler were variously employed by Catherine – the real emphasis in Bartoli’s exploratory disc is on those composers who formed the bedrock of an imported style; men such as Francesco Araia, Hermann Raupach and Vincenzo Manfredini. Russian taste was not wholly directed toward Italians - as a look at at least one of those three names will show– as Johann Adolph Hasse was widely admired in Russian musical circles as well. What this disc does suggest, however, is the assimilation of a generally Italianate taste in music. What is also revealing is the use of the Russian language; a Russian libretto was employed for Altsesta
and we duly hear two examples, sung in Russian by Bartoli. Helpfully, the book retains the Cyrillic text, providing a transliteration, as well as the standard English, French and German translations throughout.
The operas are all opera serie
and provide variety as well as breadth. These are certainly not generic examples of Italianate floridity; rather they are sophisticated examples of operatic style that frequently wrong-foots expectations. Araia’s Vado a morir
certainly does just that, retaining a moderato
expressive quality without recourse to dashing divisions. Bartoli brings Raupach’s Altsesta
vividly to life, singing venomously in Russian, her characteristic attack dripping with almost overwrought theatricality. This is the corollary of her archival work, an expected overarching profusion of dramatic incident. The uncharitable would write this off as an example of her sheer shoutiness. Its polar opposite – the opposite of this suffocating overdoing of things – comes with the next aria, a very beautiful one from the same opera, which is sung with refinement, poise, and real artistry in a finely judged acoustic.
The music also affords opportunities for the excellent original band I Barrochisti, directed by Diego Fasolis, who keeps an incisive hand on the tiller. The lyrically insinuating flute playing of Marco Brolli is particularly distinguished in De’ miel figli
where the finely judged balance allows one to hear Michele Pasotti’s equally finely played archlute. So there need be no concerns that the music is second-rate, imported fluff. On the contrary, it’s characterful and emotively searching, and technically demanding. Vincenzo Manfredi emerges as an important player at the St Petersburg court, and there’s a chance to hear Cimarosa’s ingenious aria from La vergine del sole
where the clarinet of Corrado Giuffredi brings ripe colour and the concertante-like orchestral passages enrich the music no end – all this and Bartoli’s fearsome divisions too. The envoi is a choral scene from Manfredi’s Carlo Magno
in which Bartoli is joined by soprano Silvana Bazzoni and a chorus.
This is a more out-of-the-way project from Bartoli, but that’s all the more reason to take it with due seriousness. It explores a seldom explored avenue of composition, one that lay a foundation stone for future developments in Russian operatic music. There’s no doubt that this is a highly accomplished disc and it has been beautifully complemented by Decca’s production values.
Previous review: Simon
Francesco Domenico ARAIA (1709-1770)
La forza del amore e dell odio:
Vado a morir [7:18]; Seleuco:
Pastore che a notte ombrosa [10:15]
Hermann RAUPACH (1728-1778)
: Razverzi pyos gortani, laja [6:56]; Idu na smert
[12:38]; Marcia [2:20]; Siroe, re di Persia
: O placido il mare
Domenico DALL'OGLIO (1699-1764)/Luigi MADONIS (1690-1767)
De miei figli (Prologue to La clemenza di tito
by Hasse) [4:31]
Vincenzo MANFREDINI (1737-1799)
: Fra lacci tu mi credi [6:53]; Non turbar que'
vaghi rai [9:14]; A noi vivi, donna eccelsa [3:14]
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)
La vergine del sole:
Agitata in tante pene [8:10]