This might be one of the most interesting releases of the year. It also swells the discography of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1682-1732) – not a hard thing to do, as right now it seems that very little of his music has been recorded and remains available. For a major label to release an unknown work of this size in 2007 seems almost crazy. It's a good crazy, however!
Conti was born in Florence, became a skilled theorbo player, and in 1701, left for Vienna, where he was employed by the Hapsburg court. In 1713, he also became the court's official composer. He remained in Vienna for most of his life, and died there, although it appears that he did return to Florence at one point late in his life. He wrote several operas for the Hapsburgs, and other vocal works, including this oratorio ('azione sacra,' in Conti's phrase), which is based on the Biblical story of Saul, David, and Jonathan, as told in the First Book of Samuel. It is possible that this work, first heard in the Viennese Royal Chapel in 1724, even was given in a staged or semi-staged form. It would lend itself to such treatment. For example, there is a scene in which Saul, after David has been unsuccessful at placating him with his harp, hurls a javelin at his son-in-law (and misses!).
Essentially, the story is about jealousy. Saul envies David's triumphs over Goliath and the Philistines, and finally his jealousy drives him mad. Saul therefore wants David killed, but with the assistance of Jonathan (Gionata), David's bosom friend, and Michal (Micol), David's wife and Saul's daughter, David escapes. At the end, the moralizing chorus is left wondering whether Saul really was such a great man after all.
Conti tells the story with a series of recitatives and arias, and closes each of the two parts with a chorus. The composer obviously had a gift for writing recitatives that were dramatic and that advanced the action – you won't be bored by them, even though some of them go on for several minutes. Each character has at least two arias. Here, Conti reveals a melodic bent that identifies him as an Italian by birth, but the score also has a Germanic backbone. Hearing David, one receives a possible answer to the question, "What if Handel and Vivaldi had collaborated?" One aspect of the music that seems to be Conti's own, however, is its harmonic daring, particularly in the recitatives. Here's a composer who wasn't afraid to break rules in order to make a psychological or dramatic point.
This recording dates from the fall of 2003; why has Virgin waited four years to release it? The performances are really outstanding, particularly those from the women. Mijanovi is one of those altos who is convincing in both female and male roles. Conti's original David was a "coloratura alto castrato." Obviously we don't know what that singer sounded like, but Mijanovi sounds gorgeous, has no problems with the role's vocal demands, and also acts convincingly. As his/her wife, Simone Kermes is meltingly lovely, particularly in the aria "O rendimi pietoso" in which she pleads with Saul for David's life. Sonia Prina, a singer previously unknown to me, brings her distinctive and delightful voice to Abner, one of Saul's generals, but an ally to David. Birgitte Christensen is less effective than Mijanovi at creating a male character, but she also is both touching and skilled. As Saul, Furio Zanasi is not as magnetic as he might be, but he is an excellent Baroque stylist, and it is a pleasure hearing him bring his light baritone to his music. The cast is rounded off by Vito Priante, who sings the role of Falti (Phalti), Saul's corrupt and self-serving counselor. Again, a little more characterization would have been helpful; Priante captures the character's unctuousness, but not his nastiness.
I don't know what role Alan Curtis played in preparing this score for recording, or if there were any live performances with these forces. I do know, however, that Curtis conducts David as if it is the most exciting thing he has encountered in a long time… which actually might be the case. There's nothing precious about this performance. Always stylish, Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco nevertheless give David a big sound – fit for a Hapsburg, you might say. Not surprisingly, the theorbo plays a very important role in David, especially in the title character's placatory song to Saul. Here, the instrument is played by Jakob Lindberg.
Virgin's booklet contains an informative essay by Curtis, as well as Italian texts and English translations. The engineering is top of the line. If you have any interest in vocal music from the Baroque era, do not miss this!
Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle