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Bonaventura ALIOTTI (c.1640-c.1690)
Il trionfo della morte per il peccato d’Adamo (1677)
Capucine Keller, Anne Magouët (soprano), Paulin Büdgen (alto), Vincent Bouchot (tenor),
Renaud Delaigue, Emmanuel Vistorsky (bass), Les Traversées Baroques/Étienne Meyer.
rec. 2019, Musée du Hiéron, Paray-le-Monial, France
Italian libretto and French translation included.
ACCENT ACC24368 [50:13 + 44:39]

When I first saw this recording listed, its title – plus the knowledge that Aliotti was born and brought up in Palermo - immediately made me recall one of the most striking images I saw in Palermo’s Galleria Regionale di Sicilia (in the Palazzo Abatellis) when I was there some three years ago. This is a large detached fresco, dating from the middle of the 1400s, formerly in the courtyard of another of the city’s palazzi, Palazzo Sclafani, which represents the Triumph of Death, as a skeletal personification of Death, riding on a kind of spectral horse, releases fatal darts upon the smugly contented, and obviously wealthy inhabitants of a rich enclosed garden. The young Aliotti very probably did see this fresco, when still in the Palazzo Sclafani, but his oratorio, as its subtitle (‘Through the sin of Adam’) suggests, is concerned with a different aspect of Death’s ‘triumph’. His subject is more in common with, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost (which was first published just ten years before Aliott’s oratorio was premiered) than with the medieval Dance of Death and similar traditions which underlie the fresco.

Since Aliotti is hardly well-known – he gets only two paragraphs in New Grove - a little biographical background may not go amiss. Aliotti, born in Palermo, as mentioned earlier, became a Franciscan (Minorite) friar and was, consequently, sometimes referred to as ‘Padre Palermino’. During his youth in Palermo, Aliotti studied with the organist-composer Giovanni Battista Fasolo (c.1598-post 1664) and Bonaventura Rubino (c.1600-1668), both of whom as well as being musicians of some distinction were also, like Aliotti, Franciscans. Aliotti is believed to have left Sicily in 1671. He made the long journey to Padua, where he was initially organist and then assistant maestro di capella at the Franciscan Basilica of Sant ’Antonio. He left Padua in 1674, perhaps because, as a composer, his chief interest was in the relatively new genre of the oratorio which was not yet popular in Padua. After a short spell as an organist in Venice, still in 1674 Aliotti became organist at the Oratorio dell’Annunziata in Ferrara – the church in via Borgo di Sotto can still be visited: it was the church of the Confraternita della Morte in the city. This confraternity existed to ensure that the poor were buried with dignity. Perhaps aptly, it was in this church that the present oratorio was first performed. In the same year (1677) the restless Aliotti moved on again (or perhaps, like many Sicilian he found it difficult to get on with authority), becoming maestro di cappella at the Cathedral in Spoleto. Only two years later he was back in the city of his birth, being appointed maestro di cappella at the cathedral. The circle of his life was completed when he died in Palermo.

The booklet essay by Judith Pacquier (cornettist and artistic director of Les Traversées Baroques) and biographies of Pacquier and Étienne Meyer (conductor and musical director of Les Traversées Baroques) are presented in English. The libretto is given in the original Italian and in a French, but not an English, translation. Still, the story is hardly new or obscure and even with basic Italian and French one can follow proceedings well enough. The covers of the booklet and the containing case carry a reproduction of Guio Reni’s Adam and Eve, which is in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Dijon. Since Reni is one of my favourite baroque artists this added to my pleasure in the recording.

Still, the music is what matters. I am happy to report that it is excellent and that it gets what sounds (given that I have to make a judgement without access either to a score or to any other recordings) like a superb performance.

In the years (not a few!) that I have been reviewing CDs I haven’t ever greeted any disc as, in effect, the rediscovery of a ‘lost masterpiece’. I am sorely tempted to say that of this recording but, being a cautious fellow, I shall settle for saying that Il trionfo della morte seems to me in no important respect inferior to the best of Carissimi’s oratorios. It is, in other words, a significant addition to the list of distinguished early oratorios.

The Trionfo is a substantial work – on this first recording the performance lasts almost ninety-five minutes – for orchestra, chorus and soloists. It is full of strikingly emotional arias, relished (though not in any self-regarding way) by a fine cast of singers. There are seven named characters – Eva, Adamo, Ragione (Reason), Iddio (God), Lucifero, Morte and Senso (Passion). In all cases, whether a named individual or an abstraction, all these ‘characters’ are made vivid, both by Aliotti’s writing and by the commitment which the singers bring to the interpretation of them. All the soloists are eminently satisfactory, with Capucine Keller and Renaud Delaigue being particularly impressive. The five-strong chorus which, at various points, represents a Chorus of Virtues, a Chorus of Demons and a Chorus of Angels is also accomplished and expressive. The orchestral playing, under the direction of Étienne Meyer is full of vivacity and emotional eloquence.

After the engaging sinfonia which opens the work, Adamo (Vincent Boucher) sings of a ‘torbido fantasma’; telling of a dream about a ghost which has troubled him in his sleep. He has anticipations of death, imagined as a pale archer (perhaps the unknown librettist was a poet of Palermo who had seen the aforementioned fresco?). There follows a beautiful and extended dialogue of love between Adamo and Eva (Capucine Keller), which ends when Ragione (Anne Magoüt) warns Adamo of the dangers of earthly love, which generates regrets, and urges him to remain faithful and obedient to his creator, ‘l’Alto Motore’ . In music and text alike, there is a real sense of psychological and moral complexity and doubt. The writing for the human figures (even when unfallen) lacks the perfect grace of the chorus of virtues. That perfect grace is counterpoised by the powerful music of Morte (Paulin Bündgen) in ‘Al sembiante, alla falce’ and ‘Mà che va la mia possanza’. The entrance of Lucifero (Renaud Delaigue, who doubles as God!) changes everything – both morally, since he will be the agent whereby Death can lay hold on Adam and Eve and their descendants, and musically, since his bass voice introduces a texture and weight the music has not yet had.

The great virtue of this oratorio is that the characters, above all Adam and Eve, are plausibly full of human traits we can recognize. These exist in both libretto and music and are fully brought to life by Capucine Keller and Vincent Boucher. Part I (which occupies the whole of CD1, Part II filling CD2) ends, after Eva has eaten from the apple, with a chorus of demons and the declaration of a war, formally announced by trumpets (accompanying Morte and Senso) at the beginning of Part II:

‘Al suon de più Trombe
In liete vittorie
il tutto rimbombe.’

But the movement of Part II, predictably, but no less movingly for that, is towards the divine announcement that there is still hope for man, in whom God has planted a light which will enable humanity to defeat misplaced passion. The final chorus reinforces the ‘moral’:

‘Sperate mortali
Se fulmina il Cielo
Non sempre il suo telo
In cener disfà.’

The final chorus is an affirmation of the saving power of ‘un Nume amante’ – a Loving God. The beauty of this closing chorus, with its glorious repetition of the words ‘Sperate mortali’ feels like an affirmation of the redemptive power of music too. Heard by the composer’s contemporaries, and indeed by us, Il trionfo della morte has a power beyond that possessed by any sermon. Il trionfo presents both powerfully and lucidly its narrative drama “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world”, as Milton famously puts it.

Artistically speaking, there are many episodes in the work which merit special praise – not least Eve’s glorious aria ‘Discioglietevi, dileguatevi’ in Part II, which has haunted me ever since I first heard it. Though the music of the early Baroque is rich in lamenti (both secular and religious), this is surely amongst the very greatest of them. There are other sections one could single out for praise, but that would, in truth, miss the point. The power of Il trionfo della morte resides, finally, in its larger shape, a narrative momentum which is also a psychological struggle and a moral argument. In its energy and sense of drama, in its gorgeous and sparkling music, in its psychological plausibility within a theological framework, Aliotti’s Il trionfo della morte does pretty well everything one could hope for from an early baroque oratorio. This recording of it – in which the singing, the playing and, indeed, the sound quality are all excellent - is an important act of rediscovery and reanimation.

Glyn Pursglove

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