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CD Review

Alessandro Stradella

Arcana 389

San Giovanni Crisostomo

  • Arianna Venditelli - Eudosia
  • Nora Tabbush - Consigliere
  • Filippo Mineccia - Inviato di Roma
  • Luca Cervoni - Testo, Teofilo
  • Matteo Bellotto - Cristostomo
Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A389 69:31
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

The stable of labels from the French Outhere Music, which now includes æon, Alpha, Arcana, Fuga Libera, Outnote, Phi, Ramée, Ricercar, and Zig-Zag Territoires, has become increasingly enterprising in commissioning, preparing, recording, releasing and promoting a wide range of valuable, overlooked and recherché repertoire – particularly in the "early" music field. Here is yet another: the only current recording of Alessandro Stradella's San Giovanni Crisostomo. It's in the tradition of Monteverdi yet looks forward to a freer, expansive and more open vocal style.

San Giovanni Crisostomo is an oratorio for five voices and basso continuo in two roughly equal parts… almost 70 minutes and 42 numbers in total. It must be seen in the context of an era (the late Seventeenth Century) when musical performance was fragmented by class, function and location. The new trend of 'palace oratorios' reflected the fact that the (Roman) Church opposed and attempted to suppress opera, which was becoming the province of the rich and noble families in the City. The oratorio remained a vibrant vehicle with which to explore and promote religious themes such as the struggle between vanity and virtue explored in the story of St John Chrysostom, from early Christian theological history.

Not, though, that the oratorio itself lacked color when compared with opera. Recent studies have proved beyond doubt that such works as San Giovanni Crisostomo were produced with sometimes elaborate staging, decoration, movement, costume and spectacle. This seems inevitable when the impact of opera is considered. What's more, the libretti of such "advanced" oratorios contained dialog, were concerned with character and development, drew on sources other than biblical narrative, and explored emotion and dilemma as much as doctrine. Drama was important too. Although intrigue and plot were (seen as) less suitable for the oratorio. Contemplation and interpretation of events tended to be favored and dominate themes for the genre. Stradella had to compromise: his love of experimentation and exploration of nuance in drama meant that his oratorios are at the lively and vibrant edge of developments in the generation before 1700.

He was born in 1639, moved to Rome as early as 1653 and died almost 30 years later, in 1682. Conversant, familiar, indeed at home with the great aristocratic families and patrons of the city in his time, Stradella may have composed San Giovanni Crisostomo in (support of) the papacy of Benedetto Odescalchi, who took the name Innocent XI. The life of St John Chrysostom in the fourth century when Innocent I was Pope had centered around resistance to idolatry, something of great concern to Odescalchi.

It's frustrating that the absence of a surviving libretto and the existence of only one extant musical source means that assigning sung roles to historical characters must rely on speculation. The present interpretation builds on the edition in the Opera Omnia by Carolyn Gianturco and is successful. The main conflict is between Eudosia (who insists on building a statue of herself) and John, who speaks out against such vanity. While there is much metaphor, symbolism even, in these opposites, Stradella's strength is to bring his characters to life and not stylize them, or attempt to draw more general conclusions about their motives. De Carlo and Ensemble Mare Nostrum follow suit. While there is no spurious over-characterization, these are real people with obvious fallibilities; the result is that the tension is real and the issues credible.

For the most part the singing is good. There are, though, more than a few noticeable moments when notes seem not to be held perfectly and a certain roughness creeps in. There are also passages where brightness and over-projection seems to have been allowed to prevail over a less "excited" style of vocal delivery. Even soprano Arianna Venditelli's Eudosia itself is rather weak in this respect. Sometimes hurried in articulation, the work also ends rather abruptly. The half a dozen or so instruments are modern copies of impressive-sounding originals from the end of the sixteenth century, earlier than Stradella. This is not a reconstruction. And progress through the drama is consistent and well-planned with just the right amount of sensible spontaneity. Yet one can't help feeling that Stradella – with what we have to think must have been an insistence on "standards" in public music making – must have wanted such works as this to stand regardless of the particularities of any one performance. Here, though, De Carlo and Ensemble Mare Nostrum do make this their own and leave more room for error than might be expected.

The acoustic, the Church of San Giovanni Battista, Sacrofano in Rome, is itself bright. It's equally revealing and forgives no mistakes or miscues. This aids the approach of Ensemble Mare Nostrum, whose projection is forward and immediate, intense, almost. One has the impression less of being at a "performance" than involved in the music. This, too, is all to the good. The booklet – albeit in rather a small font – contains background and the text in Italian, French and English. It's a pleasing work, and this recording is lively, technically ample and – reservations about certain aspects of technique aside – is recommended.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey