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Camilla de ROSSI (fl. 1707-1710)
Rosa Dominguez (Sposa), Agniezka Kowalczyk (Madre) (soprano), Graham Pushee (Alessio) (alto), William Lombardi (Padre) (tenor)
Musica Fiorita/Daniela Dolci
rec April 2001, Reformierte Kirche, Meiningen, Switzerland DDD
Texts and translations included
PAN CLASSICS PC10347 [64:47]

Female composers are a rare species before the 20th century. The most famous are Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677). The composer of the oratorio Sant’Alessio is an almost completely unknown quantity. Even so, in her time Camilla de Rossi must have had a good reputation. Otherwise it is hard to explain why she should have been given the opportunity to compose four oratorios for performances during Lent at the imperial court in Vienna, under the rule of Joseph I, from 1707 to 1710.

The article on Camilla de Rossi in New Grove opens with the depressing statement that “[nothing] is known of her life except that ‘Romana’ appears on the title-pages of her manuscripts, indicating Roman origin”. This suggests that she must have known Corelli’s music and probably even the composer himself. Doris Blaich, in her liner-notes, refers to the influences of the Roman master on Rossi’s oratorios, for instance in regard to the treatment of harmony. Sant'Alessio is the fourth of the oratorios which she composed for the Viennese court. The first was Santa Beatrice d'Este which Daniela Dolci recorded in 2007, undoubtedly because of the tercentenary of its composition. In 1995 Manfred Cordes recorded Il sagrifizio di Abramo, the second oratorio from Rossi's pen (CPO). That leaves the third, Il figluol prodigo, which hopefully will be recorded in due time, because on the basis of what I have heard I have come to the conclusion that she was a fine composer and that her oratorios are not inferior to those of her contemporaries.

In line with what was common at the time Sant'Alessio is divided into two parts and the scoring is for solo voices and instruments. The work consists of a sequence of recitatives and arias. There are also some peculiarities. Oratorios were usually scored for five voices which took the solo parts and together sang the closing chorus. This oratorio has only four characters and there is no chorus; the piece ends with a trio. This can be explained from the fact that the title character dies before the work ends. In addition, the instrumental ensemble is a bit larger than in most oratorios. The most common scoring was for two violins and bc; sometimes a trombone or another obbligato instrument was used for an aria or a chorus. Sant'Alessio has additional parts for viola, two trumpets and timpani; the latter may not be indicated in the score and added by Daniela Dolci as a natural company to the trumpets.

“The libretto of de Rossi's oratorio Sant’Alessio is based on the legend of Saint Alexius. On the day of his wedding, Alexius, the son of well-to-do Roman parents, hears God's command to henceforth renounce worldly pleasures. He leaves his bride, travels by boat to a faraway land, and leads a life in extreme poverty as a hermit. He then returns to Rome and lives unrecognised as a beggar in his parent’s house for seventeen years. Only after his death do his parents recognise their son” (booklet). Oratorios which were performed during Lent - as a substitute for opera - usually connected the story in one way or another to the Passion of Christ but that is not the case here. In fact, there is not even a moral at the end - something which was virtually indispensable in an oratorio. The work ends on a positive note but not without a dark streak which is expressed in the dissonants in the closing trio: “I press you to my heart, which is tormented by sorrow, and again finds its joy and everything good in the arms of death”.

From the late 17th century oratorios developed into sacred counterparts of opera, not only through the use of recitatives and arias but also in their content. That is certainly also the case here. Doris Blaich even states that “[the] libretto of the oratorio Sant'Alessio is a secret opera libretto. (...) Alessio’s arias, for example, in no way exhaust themselves in pious meditations, but rather show someone who in spite of his strong belief has doubts about his divine mission”. The most outspoken character is his bride (Sposa). The first parts ends with a true rage-aria, ‘Cielo, pietoso Cielo’. It opens with an adagio on the words: “Heaven, kind heaven”, but then the music turns to presto and she spits out fire: “An arrow, a thunderbolt I await from you. Wound, stop, kill him, who was unfaithful to me”. It is telling that the arias of Alessio and his bride are all in the minor, except one by Alessio in which he sings that “an army of sorrows (...) challenges me to a fight but in vain it attempts to attack the rock of my heart”. His bride has some moving arias as well, for instance the one which opens the second part: “Oh, tame my sorrows, arrogant heaven, or give me another heart” (“O rallenta in me l'affanno”). The arias of Alessio’s parents are in the major; in the aria in which the father joyfully welcomes the approaching wedding the strings are joined by the two trumpets and the timpani. In one aria the theorbo has an obbligato part; that was not unusual in oratorios written for the court in Vienna. It is likely that this part was played by Francesco Conti - himself also a composer of oratorios - who in 1708 had been appointed first theorbist at the imperial court.

This oratorio confirms my positive impressions of Camilla de Rossi's qualities as a composer. This recording - which was first released in 2002 but never crossed my path - deserves a wholehearted welcome, despite the fact that the performance doed not fulfil all my expectations. The singing is generally very good; I especially enjoyed hearing Graham Pushee once again who was a regular participant in early music performances and recordings at the time. William Lombardi is alright, but especially in the first part I noted some traces of the traditional style of singing in 19th-century Italian opera. Musica Fiorita makes the best of the instrumental score, although I have my doubts about the size of the string body. But my main problem is that this performance is a bit too restrained and not theatrical enough. Rosa Dominguez sings the rage aria pretty well but more could have been made of that. The recitatives are sung with the right amount of rhythmic freedom but lack a bit of drama.

That should not dissuade anyone interested in Italian oratorios from purchasing this disc. This is a fine work and there is certainly much to enjoy, as I have pointed out.

Johan van Veen



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