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Giovanni Battista BONONCINI (1670-1747)
La conversione di Maddalena, oratorio A 4 con instrumenti (1701)
Maria Maddalena - Emanuela Galli (soprano); Marta - Marta Fumagalli (alto); Amor Divino - Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (soprano); Amor Profano - Matteo Bellotto (bass)
La Venexiana/Gabriele Palomba (theorbo)
rec. 2019, Church of Santa Chiara, Pinerolo, Turin, Italy
Booklet with notes and synopsis in English, French, and German. Text in Italian and English translation
Premiere Recording
GLOSSA GCD920944 [50:06 + 55:07]

Bononcini’s oratorio about the conversion of Mary Magdalene was written for performance in Vienna in 1701. This was a time when opera performances would have been forbidden during the period of Lent so oratorios were substituted in their place. This particular work has a strong whiff of being a baroque opera disguised as an oratorio. To start with it is a is a story that while it observes a biblical theme, it is relatively unspiritual in nature. The story is a rather stodgy one in which nothing much happens. Mary Magdalene is veering between the advice of Divine Love and the blandishments of Profane Love, all the while being nudged towards the Divine by her sister Martha. As I was listening to the oratorio unfold I was constantly put in mind of the old Warner Brothers cartoons in which Daffy Duck or one of the other characters would have a little angel with a halo whispering into their right ear and a little red devil with a pitchfork whispering into their left ear; the devil always got to have the left ear... To say that this is a particularly uninspiring work is putting it rather gently. Running less than 2 hours, at times it seemed much longer than that to me. Luckily, as a compensation for the listener there is the gorgeous music that Bononcini created to accompany it. The oratorio was composed for the court chapel of Vienna, which had commissioned no less than five new oratorios for that Lenten season. Oratorio, it seems, was much admired by the Viennese court and populace.

Glossa’s recording is the first full revival of this work since it was last seen in Bologna in 1723. The Baroque ensemble La Venexiana under their leader Gabriele Palomba who also plays the theorbo, have provided some wonderfully lithe instrumental playing of the score. Bononcini’s writing is extremely varied in his response to the text in spite of the long haul of the libretto.

The vocal find on this recording is the wonderful rich-voiced contralto of Marta Fumagalli, who sings the role of the Magdalene’s sister Martha. From her very first aria Bononcini has her singing down into her boots where the absolutely solid core of her tone leaves a definite impression. Martha has much of the loveliest music in the score; although none of her music is lively, still Fumagalli never lets her side down.

Mary Magdalene is sung by soprano Emanuela Galli who has a distinctly reedy, almost granular quality to her tone. She sings her way through the rapid passages of the music somewhat carefully but she gets through them without blemish. Ultimately I found her a bit tiring on the ear after a while.

The character of Divine Love is sung by Francecsa Lobardi Fumagalli, who is blessed with a strikingly vibrant soprano voice when she chooses to use it in its natural placement. Much of her music is disfigured by the tendency in modern Baroque performing practice to drain the tone of all natural vibrancy and colouring to achieve phrase emphasis with extremely hooty sounding tone. This is a technique that should be used judiciously if it is to keep its effectiveness. It is a case of “less is more “ and there is certainly more than plenty to be had of it here. I should add that her coloratura passages are dispatched with a real sense of bravura. I would like to encounter this singer again in a recital of lieder or chansons to see what she would make of simpler musical language.

Matteo Bellotto is audibly bewitching as Profane Love and the only male member of the cast. His striking Bass has a buttery, smooth, Italianate sound which makes each of his appearances most welcome. He could be more elegant in negotiating the agile music but on the whole I am impressed with his singing. An interesting feature of the first performance in 1701 was that the entire cast was male; although the men were listed as sopranos, one presumes that they must all have been Castrati with the exception of the Bass. The mental image of the Bass singing sweet nothings into the (left?) ear of the male Mary Magdalene would make for a very interesting photo op. Based on this recording I know which of the two Amors would be my choice.

Mike Parr



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