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Federico PEROTTI (b. 1993)
Franca di Vitalta, oratorio for soloists, choir and instruments (2017) [79:19]
Franca - Carlotta Colombo (soprano)
Carenzia - Anna Piroli (soprano)
Binia - Cristina Calzolari (mezzo-soprano)
Campi - Renato Cadel (bass-baritone)
Coro Vox Silvae; Coro Kyronomia/Federico Perotti
Jacopo Bigi, Georgia Privitera (violins), Aline Privitera (cello), Paolo Badiini (double-bass), Comaci Boschi (flute), Edoardo Lega (clarinet), Stefano Fracchia (horn), Elena Piva (harp), Simone Beneventi (percussion)
rec. 2018, Sacrestia Maggiore Basilica di S.Sisto, Piacenza, Italy
Text and translation not included
TACTUS TC991601 [79:19]

The Italian Tactus label is a riddle wrapped in a mystery contained within a jewel CD case, to paraphrase the famous words of Sir Winston Churchill. Here we have a rather unusual contemporary oratorio, performed with considerable flair by little known Italian vocal and instrumental forces and conducted by its 26 years old composer, Federico Perotti. It records significant events in the life of St Franca (1170-1218), a Cistercian nun from Piacenza who became abbess of the convent of San Siro in that city at the remarkably young age of 22. The booklet offers a brief biography of St Franca, and a serviceable description of the Perotti’s work. Yet there is no information about the composer, nor is the text (and there is a lot of it) included. Instead there is a note to the effect that the libretto can be accessed via the Tactus website, and an identifier code is provided. When one accesses the site and inserts the code, however, the curt, deflating note “no lyrics found” materialises.

One certainly hopes this will change sooner rather than later, because I was rather taken with the music of Franca di Vitalta despite being left wondering exactly what was being communicated between the four principal characters and among the various choral forces. Some extensive, often frustrating online research eventually threw up a few useful titbits about the composer by way of a website devoted to Italian organists and organ music. Federico Perotti is a graduate of the Verdi Conservatory in Como; he studied both organ and composition and subsequently pursued the latter with no less a figure than Salvatore Sciarrino, whose influence is occasionally detectable (perhaps most obviously in the range of extended techniques utilised by the flautist) in this work. Perotti apparently enjoyed some success in 2017 with an oboe concerto, Galuppiana which was broadcast across Italy and as of September 2017 he was the resident organist at the basilica of San Sisto in Piacenza, where the present disc was recorded.

Franca da Vitalta consists of a brief instrumental introduction and four parts and lasts about eighty minutes. Essentially the narrative (if it can be described as such) involves Franca herself, the central protagonist, who having been a member of the Benedictine monastery of San Siro from the age of seven is unanimously elected by the chapter to succeed her predecessor as abbess. Franca’s interpretation of the Benedictine Rule is unusually austere and strict; although she is clearly a benign force her implementation of it creates tensions among some of the nuns. One of these is Binia Porta, member of a rival family to Franca’s, and more significantly the sister of the influential Bishop Grimerio (not a discrete character in this oratorio, but a force at times embodied by the solo bass-baritone), who in due course facilitates the emergence of an opposing faction. There are two further principal roles. Carenzia Visconti was a younger protégé of Franca’s who arrived from a wealthy background and renounced the world (and her material prosperity), insisting that her family used the considerable sum intended for her dowry to build a new monastery for the same order. The only male role is that of Pier Maria Campi, who became St Franca’s biographer some four centuries after the events described. In narrative terms the four parts address in turn the conflict between Binia and Franca, the initial encounter between Franca and Carenzia, the establishment of the new monastery at Montelana, and Franca’s passing, seemingly the self-sacrificial result of extreme fasting.

If I understand the notes correctly, the Campi role is effectively that of a time-travelling narrator or observer, although it’s not quite that simple; indeed he seems to be involved both inside and outside the drama, and as I have implied to personify at least one other historical character. Perotti’s structure seems to involve three overlapping and intertwining time levels. As readers might imagine then, it is difficult to make any real sense of the action without a text and translation. The synopsis alone lacks the detail required to grasp the philosophical/religious/spiritual significance of the dialogue.

I found Perotti’s music throughout to be accessible, absorbing and at times rather moving, despite having little or no understanding of the text as sung. The brief, eerie introduction incorporates harp (an imaginatively written and played part which features prominently throughout the work, ostensibly as Franca’s constant accompaniment), low strings, and a weird sighing gesture on flute which refers to Franca’s breathing and by extension to her existence. This atmospheric little prologue immediately draws one into the rather singular atmosphere of the oratorio.

Each of the four parts begins with an unaccompanied Gregorian hymn, always subjected to Perotti’s tasteful modifications. While the ancient provenance is obvious in each case, the composer modernises the harmonies and plays with the rhythms, presumably to magnify the links in his work between the distant past and the present – the note reminds us that the monastic community Franca led at the beginning of the thirteenth century still exists today. The basilica’s resonant acoustic serves the fervent, well-tuned singing of Perotti’s choirs pretty well, though it seems much less helpful to the solo voices and instrumentalists.

While the synopsis gives a broad overview of events, without the libretto one’s complete understanding seems impossible, not least because the male role of Campi (a difficult, ever-changing part sung with great conviction by bass-baritone Renato Cadel) is so multi-faceted and thus confusing for the naïve listener. The mezzo Cristina Calzolari projects an aptly histrionic countenance as Franca’s confrontational and ultimately envious rival Binia. Franca herself is sung by the soprano Carlotta Colombo, whose attractive voice conveys deep spiritual purity; Colombo certainly succeeds in communicating the tension between Franca’s inner strength and her extreme vulnerability. She arguably displays a tad more confidence than her fellow soprano Anna Piroli as Carenzia, although there is ethereal beauty in their exchanges and duetting in the final part. The instrumental music is unfailingly interesting and mercurial, encompassing facets of medieval music, Venetian baroque and high modernism, and everything in between. While the harp and percussion parts are especially vivid and colourful, Perotti manages to conjure a varied and imaginative palette of sounds from the small ensemble as a whole. For one so young, he clearly possesses the agreeable knack of making a little go a long way. At times the music and atmosphere of Franca di Vitalta brought Benjamin Britten’s three one-act ‘parable’ operas to mind. Austerity and ritual are hugely significant in both cases.

While none of the soloists on the new disc can be described as truly outstanding, they each present their extremely challenging parts with considerable skill and undeniable commitment. The Tactus recording, alas, does them few favours. It consistently fails to tame what turns out to be a cavernous, over-resonant acoustic. The sound often seems to be an issue in my encounters with recordings from this source. Over the eighty minutes I found it increasingly inhibited my enjoyment of the performance. although Perotti’s appreciation of instrumental and vocal colour still manages to shine through. In the circumstances it’s less easy to evaluate his dramatic instincts without the documentation, although the pacing of Franca di Vitalta seems eminently well-judged.

I can thus offer a qualified welcome to this new disc. My enthusiasm is perhaps amplified by the fact that Perotti is so young. On this evidence he already displays an imagination and ambition that are at least the equal of several more renowned, senior figures. He seems to have a pretty comprehensive grasp of the entire span of musical history, and an instinctive confidence in applying this learning with both taste and originality. His incorporation of ancient devices and forms into this score is neatly summarised by this quotation from the booklet: “(the content) allows the listener to create a connection that traces back from now to the thirteenth century: music that is projected onto our time and reaches us in a distorted state, incomplete, crumpled as it were by the inexorable traces of the passage of time.” I will certainly return to Franca di Vitalta in time, hopefully by then equipped with a libretto and translation. In the meantime, Tactus really need to address their shortcomings in terms of both sound production and documentation.

Richard Hanlon

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