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Intermedi della Pellegrina: Firenze 1589
Rossana Bertini (soprano), Elena Bertuzzi (soprano), Candida Guida (alto), Paolo Fanciullaci (tenor), Marco Scavazza (baritone), Mauro Borgioni (bass)
Coro Ricercare Ensemble, Compagnia Dramatodìa
Modo Antiquo/Federico Maria Sardelli
rec. 2019, Giardino di Boboli, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
DYNAMIC CDS7856 [65:58]

The Medici were not notable patrons of musicians. They did not maintain a court chapel and had just a few resident musicians at court. But they did recognise the political power of public spectacle when employed to celebrate dynastic events, in accord with contemporary theories of princely magnificence. And, so, in 1589 Ferdinando determined that his marriage to Christine of Lorraine – a union designed to raise the Medici house to the rank of European superpower – would be marked in a spectacular fashion which would, he hoped, revive the splendours of the reign of his father, Cosimo I, and signal bright new beginnings following the preceding maladministration of his brother, Francesco I.

After the nuptial vows had been made in the Santa Maria del Fiore, the distinguished guests gathered to enjoy lavish entertainments included a naumachia, banquets and theatrical performances. The highpoint of the festivities was to be a performance of Girolamo Bargagli’s spoken comedy La Pellegrina, the acts of which were separated, as was the custom, with six staged musical interludes, which involved elaborate lighting and decorative effects, complicated stage machinery, and striking choreography. These multimedia extravaganzas were overseen by the aptly named stage designer-engineer, Bernardo Buontalenti, and brought together some of the finest artists, musicians and thinkers of the day. Ferdinando’s maestro di cappella, Cristofano Malvezzi, was joined by composers Marenzio, Peri, Caccini and Cavalieri (the latter also choreographed the dances); poets Strozzi and Rinuccini; composer-poet Bardi, who was responsible for the content, and the sophisticated classical allusions around which the spectacle was constructed.

The list of those involved reads like a roll call for the Florentine Camerata, whose debates and theories would in the following decade lead to the ‘invention’ of opera. It’s no surprise that the Renaissance gesamtkunstwerk that they collaboratively devised to celebrate the dynastic marriage completely overshadowed Bargagli’s comedy, now consigned to history. The Uffizi theatre, the first indoor proscenium stage in Europe, was itself part of the spectacle, with Bardi’s moving clouds, flowing water and visual coups de théâtre creating an intoxicating tableau vivant.

Director Valentino Villa and set designer Saverio Santoliquido must have decided against trying to equal Bardi for magnificence and wonder when they presented what was described as the ‘first scenic representation in modern times’ of the intermedi for La Pellegrina in June 2019, during the LXXXII Festival del Maggio Musicale. Their ‘itinerant opera’ was presented en plein air adjacent to the Pitti Palace, and involved no flying machines, flame-spitting dragons and scenic transformations. Irony and carnivalesque replaced statecraft and splendour, as the audience followed the performers – the latter attired in kitsch ‘wedding outfits’ – around the Boboli Gardens; between the intermedi a relayed announcer described the royal nuptials.

Whatever one makes of Villa’s parodic venture, one might feel that listening to the music of the Pellegrina intermedi detached from the allegorical spectacle which fused celestial and terrestrial deities which this music vivifies are articulates – Bardi balanced three intermedi dealing with the harmony of the cosmos, with three presenting the power of human harmony – would be like eating the chips without the fish. But, each intermedio offers diverse musical forms (multi-voiced madrigals, festive choruses, elaborate solo arias and instrumental pieces) and colours. On this Dynamic recording, made in the Boboli Gardens during the 2019 Maggio Musicale Festival, Modo Antiquo (conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli) accompany the soloists and the energetic Coro Ricercare Ensemble with organs and harpsichords, lutes and lyres, harps and chitarrones, strings and flutes, trombones and cornetts. Sardelli achieves both musical magnitude and melodic refinement. The instrumental lines are nimble and there’s a hypnotically rhythmic dialectic – particularly when the choral madrigals tug and sway – that’s truly exciting. It’s a rich feast.

In 1589, Cristofano Malvezzi took on most of the musical burden, contributing to all but the second intermedio and creating the first alone. It’s interesting to hear his work alongside those of his more well-known collaborators. He clearly had a strong sense of theatre. The instrumental prelude to Harmony’s descent to earth and the goddess’s praise and blessing of the newly-weds – “never was there under the sun a noble couple such as you, new Minerva and strong Alcides” – is a masterly demonstration of the appropriation of humanist concepts of the power of music in the interests of political statecraft. Vittoria Archilei’s original descent upon a cloud is here vibrantly, though figuratively, recreated by soprano Rossana Bertina (‘Dalle più alte sfere’). It’s a shame that we can’t appreciate the ‘echo effect’ achieved when Harmony hides behind some rocks and is answered by a simulated ‘off-stage’ response, but Bertina projects well (occasionally the shine has sharp edge). The cascades are not always clean but her singing has a dramatic quality which is engaging, and which must have been beneficial in the open air of the Boboli Gardens. Elena Bertuzzi adds a touch of softness in her exchanges with the chorus of heavenly Sirens.

Luca Marenzio was charged with the composition of the second and third intermedi, which tell of the singing-test challenge made by the Pierides (the young daughters of Pierus of Pella) to the Muses, and of Apollo’s defeat of Python, the monster which terrorises the inhabitants of Delphi. Marenzio doesn’t have Malvezzi’s theatrical instincts and the three-part unaccompanied madrigal for the Muses, ‘Belle ne fe’ natura’ – in which Bertina and Bertuzzi are joined by Candida Guida, who adds an warm-grained foundation – seems rather too concerned with harmonic subtleties and conceits than with the festive spirit the occasion demanded. But, it is well-sung, as is the subsequent chorus with soloists, ‘Chi dal delfina aita’, in which Sardelli delineates the dynamics with care and to good effect. Here, Paolo Fanciullaci, Marco Scavazza, Mauro Borgioni beautifully enrich the palette in the ensemble madrigals with chorus, and Sardelli sculpts some terrific antiphonal effects, allowing his instrumentalists to elaborate the cadences with a delightful freedom and flourish. ‘O mille volte e mille’, which celebrates the defeat of Python at the close of the third intermedio (presumably the ballet music which surely must have accompanied the enactment of Apollo’s struggle is missing?), is an exemplary demonstration of superb diction and vivacious, dramatic singing by Coro Ricercare.

In the fourth intermedio we get to here Giulio Caccini, briefly. Here, the heavenly spirits, at the request of a Sorceress announce the happiness that the royal marriage will bring to the world, to the chagrin of the demons who will thus have no damned souls to torment! Bertini again shows strong appreciation of the musical rhetoric with which Caccini invigorates the Sorceress’s aria (‘Io, che dal ciel cader’), which is accompanied with expressive flair and technical discipline by the unnamed chitarrone player. An infernal drum pounds violently at the start of Giovanni de’Bardi’s contribution, ‘Miseri abitator del cieco averno’, a chorus for the Furies and Devils that ripples with wrath and really does chill the blood.

Solo singing takes centre stage in the fifth intermedio, which tells of Arion whose song charms a dolphin, thereby saving his life after he jumps into the sea to escape some sailors with murderous intent. Historic documents record that the Medici’s wedding guests were spellbound by the ornamental decoration executed by Archilei and one Jacopo Peri (later to compose what are thought to be the first ‘operas, Dafne (1597) and Euridice (1600)), describing their singing as ‘superhuman’. Bertini hooks one’s attention as Anphrite, queen of the sea (‘Io che l’onde raffreno’, by Malvezzi) but it is Marco Scavazza who truly astounds in Arion’s lament, demonstrating extraordinary agility and precision allied with sensitivity to the way that virtuosity communicates meaning. His aria, ‘Dunque fra torbid’onde’, is unusual, the echo-effects highlighting the power of that virtuosity itself, and it’s a highpoint of this disc. It’s not hard to hear Orfeo’s ‘Possente spirto’ on the horizon. The aria flows with positive dynamism into Malvezzi’s ‘Lieti, solcando il mare’, in which the ignorant sailors celebrate their own survival, believing Arion to have perished. The irony of the contrapuntal vigour is fully exploited by Sardelli.

The final intermedio, modelled on Plato’s laws, depicts the gods’ gift of music and dance to the mortals. Cavalieri devised intricate choreography to complement Buontalenti’s machines which brought the gods down to the stage on clouds, and himself composed both Jupiter’s ‘Godi, turba mortal, felice e lieta’ – sung commandingly by Bertini, whose voice settles as the performance proceeds – and the exuberant conclusion, ‘O che nuovo miracolo’, in which Plato’s gods merge with the couple through whose union their authority will be sustained. “Cantiam lieti lodando Christina e Ferdinando” the Chorus conclude and, as Sardelli pushes with infectious dynamism towards the close, it’s easy – and consoling in troubling times – to be swept up in the ebullient belief that “the golden age will return”.

Alongside detailed track information, a synopsis, photographs of the 2019 production and an Italian-English libretto, the liner booklet includes an informative article by Bettina Hoffman about intermedi, both as a genre and specifically as realised in 1589 at the Medici court. This disc enables one to imaginatively recreate the splendour of the Florentine court. The singing is both wonderful and an embodiment of the wondrous.

Claire Seymour

Cristofano MALVEZZI (1547-97)
I Intermedio: The Harmony of the Spheres
Luca MARENZIO (1554-99)
II Intermedio: The context of the Pierides and the Muses
III Intermedio: The combat of Apollo with the serpent Python
Giulio CACCINI (c.1550-1618), Cristofano MALVEZZI, Giovanni de’ BARDI (1534-1612)
IV Intermedio: Heavenly spirits announce the advent of a new Golden Age
Cristofano MALVEZZI, Jacopo PERI (1561-1633)
V Intermedio: Arion and the dolphin
Cristofano MALVEZZI, Emilio de’ CAVALIERI (1550-1602)
VI Intermedio: Jupiter appears in the sky with the council of the gods

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