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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Il Dolore di Maria Vergine (1717?)
Mary - Rosita Frisani (soprano)
St. John - Anna Cherichelli (soprano)
Nicodemus - Gianluca Belfiori Doro (alto)
Onia - Mario Cecchetti (tenor)
Alessandro Scarlatti Consort (on original instruments)/Estévan Velardi
rec. 2001, Oratorio di S.Erasmus, Sari, Genova
No texts or translations included.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95534 [77.20 + 68.54]

This work of well over two hours in length is an oratorio, but is effectively an opera in all but name. When the opera houses had to close in Italy (and across much of Europe) during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, what did the composers and singers do? – the answer, of course, was to sing oratorio. But composers could not change their spots so if you are a dramatic composer who sees musical drama in any event then a story like the last hours of Christ’s life is ideal.

Its often puzzled me as to why Alessandro is generally considered by most textbooks to be a lesser composer than his son Domenico. The latter wrote almost entirely keyboard sonatas, scarcely dabbling in other forms. Now, as fascinating as those works are, his father was a more versatile composer, with operas, oratorios and instrumental sonatas, church music like masses and concerti to his credit. The writer of one of the essay’s booklet Lino Bianchi goes even further, and I quote, to claim that this oratorio is “one of the greatest works in the history of music”. A somewhat surprising claim perhaps. He goes on to qualify his thinking by adding that the “masterpiece was in no small part due to the (anonymous) libretto … drawing in the audience” into the full emotional impact of the story”. In the second essay by the conductor Estévan Velardi we read that Scarlatti “should be considered one of the most outstanding figures in the musical genre of ‘oratorio’”

The full title of the original oratorio translates as ‘The Lady of Sorrows being in two parts for four solo voices, strings, flute, oboe, and trumpet and basso continuo’. Velardi decided that the title did not carry enough weight hence the title above. There are just four voices which represent four characters, Mary (Jesus’s mother) St. John, also given to a soprano (on the grounds possibly that it has generally been thought that he was a very young man at the time of Jesus’s death), who stood beside the cross and later “took her to his home”, Nicodemus (an alto or more precisely according to Velardi a specifically chosen male contralto) who with Joseph of Arimithea helped to place Jesus in the garden tomb and, rather curiously you might at first think, one ‘Onia’ a high priest who was hostile to Christ and acts to strengthen the drama and to add conflict.

This is the work’s premiere recording, and is a reissue of the 2003 release on Bongiovanni. I have to say that the performance does it justice, but I am very disappointed that no texts are available in the booklet. This consists of fifteen pages with two essays (one explaining the plot, the other also very helpful by the conductor Estévan Velardi); you can also read his extensive biography. The texts are available in pdf format from Brilliant Classics website. If one opts to print off the text, the question arises how to store it. I can’t find paper of a suitable size to fit into the double jewel case and even if I could it would take it too much room. The work is composed of fifty-two numbers, a mixture of arias, some duets and recits accompanied mostly by strings as well as basso continuo an effect which helps to make the music feel very expressive and in a continuous flow of inspiration, that makes up this great canvas.

There is no doubt that Mary is the central character in the drama and Rosita Frisani does not disappoint with an even tone quality across the required wide range. One of the highlights is the longest aria in part 1 the gracious ‘Col suo flebil mormorio’ and similarly in part 2 the more tragic ‘Figlio, a morte tu t’en vai (Son you go to your death). All of the characters are musically distinguished. Onia is generally given fast and hammered out rhythms as in the brusque aria ‘Spira o ciel nel petto mio’. St. John is at one time allotted “halty, anxiety-ridden music” which can also feature in Nicodemus’s lines in places. Mary’s music however is generally very expressive and lamenting and Scarlatti pierces the heart with his long, lyrical lines and manages not to fall into rambling sequential passages. However all four singers inhabit their characters successfully and their voices contrast sufficiently but blend ideally when required. Instrumental work adheres to all of the qualities expected of period performance and when playing alone is quite delightful and sensitive.

Gary Higginson



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