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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1719-1736)
Li prodigi della Divina Grazia nella conversione e morte di San Guglielmo, Duca D'Aquitania (1731) [142:46]
Monica Piccinini (soprano - San Guglielmo)
Caterina Di Tonno (soprano - Angelo)
Carla Nahadi Babelegoto (soprano - San Bernardo)
Federica Carnevale (soprano - Arsenio)
Mauro Borgioni (bass - Emonio)
Mario Sollazzo (bass - Capitan Cuņsemo)
Ensemble Alraune/Mario Sollazzo
rec. January 2019, La Fomnte, Modena, Italy

What do we know of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi beyond his Stabat Mater? There is certainly more to be discovered, with a few concertos and sinfonias, operas and sacred music, but a tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 26, the erosion of works previously attributed to him and the dismantling of myths connected with his life might leave the impression he had hardly written anything at all.

Pergolesi’s precocious talent is however clear in this, his first operatic work, La conversione e morte di San Guglielmo (The Conversion and Death of Saint William), a sacred musical drama in three parts based on the life of Saint William of Aquitaine as recounted by Laurentius Surius. It was composed while he was still a student at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesł Cristo in Naples, as confirmed by a quote from 1820 on the back cover of this sumptuous release: “So great was the applause received by the young maestro and so great the commotion created in Naples by Pergolesi’s musical talent and taste, the the three leading houses… vied together to grant him their friendship and protection.”

Words such as sacred drama and oratorio seem too dry set against this decidedly operatic and lively work, and the latter only really applies to a version from a 1742 revival in Rome at which the comic elements of the original were removed. As with just about every Baroque opera the plot is too convoluted to outline in a few words, but there is plenty of activity including numerous appearances of angels and the Devil, who tempts and attempts to deceive Saint William throughout the drama. The comic bass character of Captain Cuņsemo is the most distinctive ‘light relief’ of the piece, with Mario Sollazzo’s voice almost defiantly non-operatic but highly effective in the role. If you can cope with this Baroque genre’s usual swathes of recitative and male roles written for high or female voices - all convincingly acted and sung here - then the whole thing can be counted as royally entertaining.

You know you are in for a treat from the start, with an opening sinfonia full of drive and energy, the musicians of Ensemble Alraune sounding superb. With the libretto printed in full in a richly annotated and illustrated glossy booklet it is not hard to follow what is going on. The singers are all excellent, and the recording has a vibrant ‘live’ feel, with a sense that risks are being taken. This is by no means a precious artefact being nursed along carefully in case it falls apart. The production is red-blooded and captivating, and all of the singers are excellent both in terms of vocal colour and dramatic characterisation. A particular highlight is San Gugliemo’s sublime aria Manca la guida al pič in Act III, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any weak moments at any point in this production.

This recording is claimed as a ‘First world recording on period instruments’, which I won’t argue with. Each act has its own disc, the chunky book format is highly attractive, and the recording is very well produced, with some nice resonance and air around both singers and musicians. It is vastly superior to Fabio Maestri’s version on the Bongiovanni label, which has a pungent theatrical atmosphere but with a relatively thin sounding accompaniment and good but certainly not superior singers. As far as I can tell this is the only alternative, so this Musica NovAntiqua recording comes out easily on top for this neglected masterpiece.

Dominy Clements

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