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Antonio Maria BONONCINI (1677-1726)
La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista (1709)
San Giovanni Battista – Ewa Marciniec (alto)
Erodiade – Bożena Bujnicka (soprano)
Salome – Aldona Bartnik (soprano)
Erode - Jaromír Nosek (bass)
Angelo – Joanna Dobrakowska (mezzo-soprano)
Wrocław Baroque Orchestra/Andrzej Kosendiak
rec. 2018, Main Hall, Witold Lutosławski National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD256-2 [46:06 + 45:24]

Antonio Maria Bononcini may be less familiar than his older brother Giovanni, who is chiefly remembered for his rivalry with Handel on London’s operatic stage in the 1720s, but this striking oratorio reveals an imaginative and distinguished composer and both ought to be more widely known. The work’s form follows the same structure as the then prevalent opera seria with a chain of recitatives and da capo arias, albeit that its music is more solemn and austere as befits its religious subject, with often accomplished contrapuntal textures rather than purely lyrical or melodic ones.
To that extent, it is fairly typical of other such Italian works of its time, including Handel’s near contemporary oratorios La Resurrezione and Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, as opposed to the latter composer’s later choral epics in English. The couple of choruses in Bononcini’s work follow operatic convention in simply calling upon the soloists to sing in ensemble.

However, as Brent Wissick’s liner notes observe, Bononcini does imaginatively confound expectations with respect to form as when Erode (Herod) interrupts the middle section of Salome’s aria ‘Delle palme’, evidently in an excited state at her dancing and flattering praises. Indeed, Aldona Bartnik’s performance is beguilingly fresh-voiced, suggesting a virginal knowingness, and sparkling in ‘Festivi, giulivi, risuonate’ which opens Part Two and the celebrations in honour of Herod’s birthday. Bartnik also ornaments the da capo of her aria ‘Clizia, che amante del sole’ crisply, adding a flighty dimension to her character.

The ethereal alto voice of Ewa Marciniec interrupts the musical dialogue with John the Baptist’s declamations, as chillingly as should Jokanaan’s offstage cries from the cistern in an ideally dramatic performance of Strauss’s opera on the same subject. There is comparatively little music for the Baptist in Bononcini’s oratorio, but it is distinguished for its contrapuntal gravitas, which the strings of the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra handle with a tenebrous elegance in ‘Bacio l’ombre, e l catene’.

The figure of Erodiade (Herodias) the wife of Herod is artfully restrained in Bożena Bujnicka’s interpretation, in keeping with the ultimately sacred purpose of this work. Nevertheless, she sounds plangent at first, negotiates her subsequent recitatives and arias with dramatic sensitivity, and ends with a grim, ironic exultation for her last aria and duet with Salome as they rejoice in securing the Baptist’s execution. Jaromír Nosek sings Herod lithely, but with a grainy weariness which suggests his troubled state of mind. Joanna Dobrakowska’s Angel is, of all the voices here, surprisingly effusive in tone and the most operatic with her vivid vibrato, perhaps meaning to express the incursion of divine light and grace into the torrid world of Herod’s regime under Roman occupation.

Compared with Richard Strauss’s opera – based on Oscar Wilde’s lurid and highly sexualised play – this oratorio is positively chaste. Rather than a heady narrative of fin de siècle decadence, Giovanni Domenico Filippesci’s Baroque libretto is a spiritually elevating drama. It skilfully draws an implied allegorical contrast between the weak and self-indulgent Herod – whose rule and being are ironically described in terms of reviving sunlight – and the true King of Israel, Jesus Christ, for whom the Baptist paved the way. It is for that reason the Church sets the festival of the latter’s birthday at the height of the sun’s course in the year at midsummer, pointing ahead to the birth of the Messiah as the true light in the world at the moment of its darkest winter.

Andrezj Kosendiak leads the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra in a thoughtful and effective performance which avoids exaggerated gestures, respecting the work’s generally solemn nature, and culminating in the madrigalian intimacy of the concluding chorus, accompanied only by the continuo organ, apart from its brief instrumental episodes. Sometimes more extrovert projection would not go amiss; for example, the arrows, which are mentioned in the Angel’s aria ‘Tardi diviene all’ira’ and depicted in the music, could be more graphically illustrated.

But these are minor issues, and this new recording encompasses a leaner subtlety than the 2012 account on the Tactus label, by the Orchestra del Testro dell’Opera Barroca di Guastella under Sandro Volta. This offers a firmer, more fully upholstered instrumental sound, and some idiosyncratically vivid singing, particularly on Herodias’s part – which some may prefer as more operatic and extrovert, though its resonant acoustic palls more easily and the score is cut. But as the new Polish recording is now more readily available, and presents the work complete, it stands as a self-evident recommendation for fans of Baroque vocal music, surely also offering a fascinating contrast with the slightly earlier oratorio on the same subject by Stradella, setting a different libretto. The recording deserves to win new admirers for this work.

Curtis Rogers

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