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Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774)
La Passione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo (1749)
Maddalena – Anke Hermann (soprano)
Giovanni – Debora Beronesi (mezzo soprano)
Pietro – Jeffrey Francis (tenor)
Giuseppe d’Arimatea – Maurizio Picconi (bass)
Ensemble Vocale Sigismondo d’India
Ensemble Vocale Eufonia
Berliner Barock Akademie /Alessandro De Marchi
Full Italian text and translation in English
rec. March/April 1996, Oratorio de l’Immatricolatella, Palermo, Italy
PAN CLASSICS PC10376 [78:45 + 46:12]

This is a fascinating perspective upon the Christian Passion story by a composer and a librettist better known for their operatic works. Rather than a Passion of the narrative type familiar from the settings by Bach and some of his Lutheran predecessors, this oratorio brings to bear the different dramatic format of opera seria upon the events of the first Good Friday. Pietro Metastasio’s text does that, not so much by a direct re-telling of those events or through the pious devotion of a confessional Christian, but by reflecting upon Christ’s suffering and death through the sorrows expressed by the closest witnesses to that tragedy in its immediate aftermath in purportedly real historical time, more or less. The closest musical parallel is perhaps Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, which reflects upon the Passion just as it is about to happen, where Jommelli’s muses upon it directly afterwards, with the Resurrection only anticipated.

The text may anachronistically refer to the efficacy of Christ’s death for the expiation of mankind’s sins, but it is the personal sorrow of the four principals which is the focus of the oratorio’s sequence of recitatives and da capo arias. Initially Jeffrey Francis’s Peter and Anke Herrmann’s Mary Magdalene sound somewhat unsure of themselves, the former with a slight tremble in his singing and wan, sagging appoggiaturas, and the latter with a brittle tone in her otherwise sweetly characterised music. But they come together with greater assurance in the duet which is the penultimate number of Part One, in which they express remorse for their past failings that they recognise to be, theologically, the cause of Christ’s death. The chromatic leaps of the cadenza which Herrmann improvises at the end of Part Two’s ‘A’ passi erranti’ demonstrates a secure technique in coloratura for which there is otherwise little outlet in this work. Similarly, there is no audible effort in Francis’s attaining the high notes of Jommelli’s occasional florid writing for the part of Peter which reaches a French-style haute-contre at times in the pitch Alessandro De Marchi has chosen for this performance.

Maurizio Picconi brings a stark vocal quality to the bass role of Joseph of Arimathea which borders on something of the nature of opera buffa with his strongly rolled ‘r’s in his two arias which depict, respectively, the merciless crowds at the road to Calvary, and the revenge-to-come upon faithless Jerusalem. Debora Beronesi offers the most consistent pleasure as John (i.e. the ‘Beloved’ apostle) with her solid execution across the broad tessitura of the music, though she is too tame in what should be the outrage expressed in ‘Come, a vista di pene’.

The dramatic temper of De Marchi’s interpretation is more low key than would be appropriate for a genuine secular opera seria, but there is a translucent and sprightly character in many of the arias, matching the score’s clear, pristine textures. Their mainstay is the strings’ bright and fresh timbre, serving as a dependable background for the occasional spotlight thrown upon the oboes or horns. The assembled choral forces are lucid and measured in the three numbers given to them, not least in the more complex, interwoven counterpoint of ‘Quanto costa’ which uses a similar fugal motif prevalent in the 18th century that is familiar from ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah, the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem, as well as the A minor fugue of Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The sleeve notes provide only the briefest discussion of the background to this composition in Jommelli’s career, which is a pity for so little-known a work which is contemporaneous with Handel’s Solomon and Theodora, but yet looks forward to the sacred and secular vocal works of Haydn and Mozart two or three decades later. It is also a shame that the recording is not absolutely complete as a few da capos are cut, a couple of sections of the multi-movement overture and, the notes admit, a whole recitative and aria for Peter from Part Two. With ample room on the disc, it would surely have been better to allow listeners to decide whether the latter was indeed “of little interest from the musical and dramatic aspect” in De Marchi’s words and skip through those tracks if necessary.

In this reissue the recording captures the forces as though in a hazy glow, rather than with immediate sparkle, and that may have prevented a greater sense of narrative, dramatic urgency from coming through. But it certainly falls pleasantly on the ear and provides a welcome opportunity to explore this composition, of which this is the only available version, as the earlier one by Arturo Sacchetti is out of print.

Curtis Rogers



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