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Alessandro STRADELLA (1639-1682)
Santa Pelagia
Roberta Mameli (soprano), Raffaele Pe (alto), Luca Cervoni (tenor), Sergio Foresti (bass)
Ensemble Mare Nostrum / Andrea De Carlo
rec. 2016, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Nepi, Italy
Texts and translations included
ARCANA A431 [50:22]

The disc under review here is the fourth in a series, called ‘The Stradella Project’. I don't know which parts of Stradella's oeuvre will be included in this project. He was a prolific composer, and his extant output comprises music for the stage, liturgical and non-liturgical sacred music, madrigals and cantatas. It also includes six oratorios, and two of them were the subject of volumes 2 and 3. I am sure that the two best-known oratorios, San Giovanni Battista and Susanna, will be recorded at a later stage. As these are available in several performances, it was a good idea to start with those oratorios which are seldom performed. That also goes for Santa Pelagia.

Whereas John the Baptist (San Giovanni Battista) and Susanna are familiar characters, and were the subject of a number of compositions in the 17th and 18th centuries, Santa Pelagia is an unknown quantity. As far as is known, Stradella is only one of two composers who took her as the subject of an oratorio, the other one being Marcantonio Ziani (c1653-1715). “Derived from fifth century Greek hagiography, the story of Pelagia (...) tells the tale of a dancer and prostitute in Antioch whose beauty inspired Nonnus, the Bishop of Edessa, with the words for a moral address to the priests taking part with him at a synod. Deeply touched by the bishop’s words, Pelagia underwent conversion and was baptised, renouncing her life of sin and heading for Jerusalem, where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse in a small cell on the Mount of Olives” (booklet).

Just like Santa Editta, which was the subject of the previous volume (review), this oratorio belongs in the category of the morality. It is part of a tradition which goes back to Emilio de Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. Such pieces are about a particular character -in this case Santa Pelagia, scored for soprano - who has to make a choice between good and evil. The latter are represented by two allegorical characters: Religion (Religione) and the World (Mondo), sung by an alto and a bass respectively. It is Nonnus (Nonno), a role for a tenor, who tries to convince her to choose the path of virtue. Arnaldo Morelli, in his liner-notes, observes a similarity between the figure of Santa Pelagia and Mary Magdalene. Although the four characters are involved in a dialogue with strongly opposing views, the oratorio is not really dramatic. It is rather a dispute of a philosophical nature, in which the various participants bring forward their arguments for their case.

The oratorio, in two parts, is divided into 54 sections, in a strict order of recitative and aria. Only on a few occasions is this pattern interrupted. The first part includes one duet, and at one moment two arias are sung in succession. In the second part we find the only chorus of this work, between a recitative and an aria. The arias are mostly rather short: only one of them is longer than two minutes. Although most of the arias consist of two sections, not all of them have a dacapo structure. Recitatives often turn to the form of an arioso at the end.

It is not known exactly when and where this oratorio was first performed, nor who wrote the libretto. It is suggested it could have been written by the Roman prince Lelio Orsini, who is also the author of Santa Editta. “In particular the libretto suggests that Santa Pelagia was conceived not for a general audience, but for an Úlite, for example a college of nobles, an aristocratic confraternity or a patrician palace, such as those assiduously frequented by the extremely religious Lelio Orsini”, Morelli writes. Like Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo Stradella’s oratorio is an expression of the ideals of the Counter Reformation, which was a particularly powerful force in Rome. The work does not end with a chorus, as one might expect, but with an expressive aria for Santa Pelagia, in which she laments her wrongs: “Observe this liquefied heart as it gradually dissolves, and weeping over its misdeeds, it burns entirely with your fire, O Lord of the Heavenly realm”. In this way the members of theaudience are urged to lament and do penance for their own sins.

The arias are quite different, reflecting the various characters and the stages in the development of the dispute. One of the arias of Santa Pelagia is called aria agitata, but it is not the only piece of a bellicose nature. However, there are also more tender and lyrical pieces. The fact that the arias and the recitatives are mostly rather short, does not work against this oratorio. Indeed, some listeners may be delighted that they don't have to listen to an aria of seven or eight minutes, as in operas of the 18th century.

In my reviews of the previous volumes I have expressed my pleasure about the level of the performances. There is every reason to do the same here. Half of the 26 arias are sung by Santa Pelagia; Roberta Mameli, who has a beautiful and flexible voice and gives an excellent account of this role. Her arias vary in character; they all come off perfectly. Raffaele Pe is convincing in the role of Religion, and avoids making it too smooth. The way Sergio Foresti portrays the World is just right, without overdoing its wickedness. Luca Cervoni has only a couple of arias to sing; his role mostly consists of recitatives, which he sings very well. That also goes for his colleagues: the recitatives are performed in a truly speechlike manner.

This oratorio has been preserved in only one source, which also includes parts for violins and viola. They are involved in a sinfonia at the opening of the work, and some arias. However, musicologists doubt whether these string parts were written by Stradella himself, in part because the counterpoint is sometimes awkward. Therefore Andrea De Carlo decides to omit them. As a result Santa Pelagia opens with a recitative, and all the arias are accompanied by basso continuo alone. I didn’t miss the additional instrumental parts, thanks to the imaginative and vivid accompaniments of the instrumentalists of the Ensemble Mare Nostrum.

This is a very fine disc, and those who already have the previous volumes should not hesitate to add this fourth instalment. I look forward to the next recordings in this interesting project.

Johan van Veen

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