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Pietro Antonio CESTI (1623-1669)
La Dori (1657)
Francesca Asciati (alto) - Dori (Ali); Francesca Lambardi Mazzulli (soprano) - Arsinoe; Emöke Baráh (soprano) -Tolomeo and Celinda; Rupert Enticknap (counter-tenor) - Orante; Frederico Sacchi (bass) - Artaxerse; Bradley Smith (tenor) - Arsete; Alberto Allegrezza (tenor) - Dirce; Pietro Di Bianco (bass baritone)- Erasto; Rococ Cavalluzzi (bass) - Golo; Konstantin Derri (counter-tenor) - Bagoa
Academia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. August 22, 24 & 26 2019, Innsbrucker Festwochen, Austria
CPO 555 309-2 [79.47 + 80.59]

Opera plots! Seventeenth century opera plots especially are intricate and quite puzzling for modern day listeners because they often require, what the CD booklet calls, a firm knowledge of the plot’s ‘pre-history’. The librettist was the Innsbruck court poet Giovanni Filippo Apolloni (d.1688) and although I am not going into this plot in any great depth, it is, however, worth knowing that Dori is a princess of Nicosia and she is pledged to Orante a prince of Persia. Before they can be joined Orante has to return home on the death of his father. Later Dori is captured by bandits and wants to drown herself. Yet, you cry, the opera hasn’t started yet!

Meanwhile Orante dreams about Dori but he has pressure put on him to marry Arsinoe who is herself a princess and who, coincidentally, once saved Dori’s life. By the end of Act III, Orante agrees to do so but, on hearing it, Dori sends a letter declaring that she will kill herself. However, she was in fact disguised as another character, a slave named Ali and dramatically removes her camouflage admitting to only taking a sleeping potion, so that now Dori can indeed marry Orante and Arsinoe can marry an Egyptian prince names Tolomeo. Needless to say, my summary is very basic omitting many other subplots but, hopefully, you get the idea.

It was a singularly popular opera and thirty performances are known to have taken place across Italy by 1689, having been premiered in front of the Archduke of Austria in Innsbruck in 1657. The three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Pietro Cesti’ s death was mostly overlooked now the recording of this performance seems to be the only work of his that has appeared as a result.

The useful and detailed booklet by Monika Fink explains that there is no definitive version of the opera, there being four extant manuscripts to consider. There are twenty-seven divergent libretti and several cuts are indicated. It’s all quite complex and it’s probably best if I move on and give you some idea of the music and of the performance.

Cesti’s skill was to incorporate arioso increasingly into the drama, instead of the more cerebral secco recitativo, arioso being a halfway house between recitative and arias. A good example of Cesti’s ability to move effortlessly between these techniques as the text demands, comes in the dramatic aria in Act II scene IV Amor, che mi consigli when Dori, dressed as Ali debates within herself if she should commit suicide as she will never possess her love or give herself to another. The opening aggressive mood changes after four lines into recitative and then into arioso and later into a memorable lyrical melody as she decides that life and hope are preferable. In portraying these various moods Francesca Ascioti is totally convincing, as are throughout the Academia Bizantina, which support her magnificently. Cesti can write very expressively, and for a further example of beauty of melody and expression listen to Orante’s Act 1 aria Rendetemi mi il mio bene which is captured elegantly by Rupert Enticknap. The supporting cast are also entirely convincing with no weak link either technically or theatrically.

The orchestra was, by the mid-17th Century, a significantly larger ensemble and Cesti explores much of its colour conveyed brilliantly under Dantoni’s direction. The strings and continuo, vividly projected in the sound picture, are joined on occasions by woodwind described as a ‘flauto a bacco’, which is really a recorder in addition to the normal ‘flauto traverso’. As well having two short Sinfonias it also comments on, echoes and introduces arias and characters so that it plays a significant role. Especially moving is the aria Speranze fermate in which the orchestra intervenes with the same music half way through the text, as does a recitative, before returning to its original idea.

The one-hundred-and-fifty-page booklet has all of the texts, useful essays and also has photographs of the obviously lavish and well-costumed performance of the opera, which took place, I think, immediately before the recording session at the Innsbrucker Festwochen as part of its annual festival of early music.  Snap it up, as you will probably never see its like again.

Gary Higginson

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