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Emilio de CAVALIERI (c.1550-1602)
Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) [93.18]
Marie-Claude Chappuis (mezzo) - Anima
Johannes Weisser (baritone) - Corpo
Gyula Orendt (baritone) - Tempo/Consiglio
Mark Milhofer (tenor) - Inteletto/Piacere
Marcus Fink (bass-baritone) - Mondo/Compagno di Piacere
Berlin State Opera Chorus; Concerto Vocale
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902200.01 [38.15 + 54.33]

Anyone, especially music students, who has been brought up with Curt Sachs' iconic 'A Short History of World Music' (Dobson, London, 1956) will have read about the extraordinary ‘three scores’ of 1600 that altered the course of music. One of the three was this work which Sachs describes as in the tradition of ”moralities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, its dramatic personae were allegories or abstract conceptions - Time, the World, Life and Intellect and its attitude was strongly didactic and edifying rather than dramatic.” So it was with a certain trepidation that I picked out the thick booklet with its two essays and texts and started to work through this famous piece which is probably more written about than heard.

Indeed my fears were not allayed on reading the text by Padre Agostino Manni — wonderfully translated in the booklet by Charles Johnston. It’s difficult nowadays to agree with or to get a handle on texts like this. Life according to the character ‘Prudent’ in the opening spoken dialogue, is a ‘dark vale of tears, a barren source of thought, a river swollen by tears and a stormy sea of miseries”. The only way to live is to think upon heavenly rewards and joys. ‘Body’ wants to enjoy fame and fortune in the present world., ‘Soul’ tries to draw him “towards loftier impulses”. But, like Jesus in the desert ‘Body’ is tempted. However the heavenly angels eventually carry him through and into the final ‘Festa’ which is a celebration in paradise with singing and dancing. Manni was a follower of Filippo Neri and his confraternity, a group that emphasised a personal need for salvation. To make the venture so successful we must also assume that Cavalieri was at least in considerable sympathy with their ideas.

I was expecting a series of somewhat dry (secco) recitatives and slow arias rather in the manner of Jacopo Peri’s Dafne of the same year but I was utterly wrong. I should have recalled the delight and fun we had in the late 1970s putting on a London performance of the music for the 1589 Medici wedding to which Cavalieri made such a joyous contribution. There are many reasons for wallowing in and really enjoying this work.

As René Jacobs writes, the piece “offers an ideal vehicle for studying the role of dance as an integral element of baroque culture and mentality”. Clearly then, there are dances and bouncy dance rhythms. There is much use of instrumental colour and contrast, some of which is dictated by the composer but much else is I assume of Jacobs’ own imagination. There are passages for instruments alone – Interludes - some by Cavalieri himself but also employing extracts from Schein’s Banchetto Musicale (not actually published until 1617, but never mind) and some Masque music (I assume) by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger including a superb Infernal Sinfonia.

Jacobs' scoring is for strings but with added recorders, cornets, trombone and percussion and a continuo including an organ. These help to delineate characters very successfully. One of my favourite moments is in Act 3 when a ‘Heavenly Sinfonia’ of strings plays a little interlude of Ferrabosco’s just before ‘Intellect’ sings ‘Souls who rejoice in Heaven’. These instruments are split into three groups to allow these colour spacings. In the theatre Jacobs places them to the sides and behind the singers and this also allows for some delicious ‘echo’ effects.

Next, the vocal lines, which are often restricted in scope. These do not encompass a wide range and are not particularly virtuosic. It is as though the composer does not want us to enjoy the worldly ornamentation of the singers — although Jacobs does permit some — in favour of a simpler vocal line. There is, in addition, little text repetition. The style is more arioso than recit, and there is much for the chorus to do, commenting on the action and leading us on quickly to the next scene. In Act 3 a real sense of drama is felt in the contrast between Heaven and Hell with an audible hell-fire, a sort of musical realisation of the kind of doom painting you might find in England, say at the Guild Chapel in Stratford-on-Avon or above the chancel arch in St. Thomas’s church. Salisbury.

As to whether the piece is Opera or Oratorio, a topic dwelt on in the booklet essays especially by Silke Leopold, in this performance the drama of the opera house seems to be very close but to the Romans of 1600. It was nothing but a presentation and an entertainment. Anyway Jacobs staged the work at Berlin’s Staatsoper im Schiller-Theater so one can see clearly where he is coming from.

The work has no story-line as such — just a series of conversations between good and earthly characters. Thus, it is not in the tradition of the third great score of 1600 Monteverdi’s Orfeo, being much more static.

Jacobs extracts from his performers a strong sense of drama and momentum. This is instinctive but also carefully calculated through an in-depth understanding of the music and its period. I have not heard any other recording or performance but all I can say is how impressed I became. It's something to do with the strength of the musical ideas and the determined work which Jacobs and his supporters, including those in the technical department, have applied to this project.

My only gripe is that I don’t understand why Act 2 had to be split between the two CDs. It would have fitted on disc one perfectly well. Anyway, both CDs and the one hundred-page booklet are in a sumptuous cardboard case which, very aptly is decorated with scenes from Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling.

Gary Higginson

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~~ Johan van Veen


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