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Alessandro Scarlatti
21 Oct 2008

Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo

“One can easily imagine -- Berkeley professor Donald J. Grout wrote in 1979 -- a Scarlatti oratorio occasionally being sung in church or in concert […], but it is more difficult (though perhaps not quite impossible) to imagine a Scarlatti opera being staged at a modern opera house”.

Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo

A Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco production
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Siena, October 11, 2008

Above: Alessandro Scarlatti


Indeed, among the giants of Baroque music immediately prior to Bach and Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti has long been the most appreciated composer in the academia, although his works were performed less than his successors’. Now the pendulum, largely thanks to Grout himself, has swung so far that even Alessandro Scarlatti’s lovely oratorios are staged both at opera houses and in churches.

Despite the lamentable shutdown, half a decade ago, of the Scarlatti Festival in the composer’s native Palermo, interest in digging up his forgotten vocal works remains strong in Italy. One spearhead in the process is Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante, whose 2004 recording of the Oratorio per la Santissima Trinità (Oratorio for the Most Holy Trinity) is a must for Baroque collectors. Another is the Siena-based ensemble Il Rossignolo, which this year chose Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo (The Triumph of the Most Holy Virgin Received into Heaven) as the centerpiece for the first instalment of “Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco”, a much promising series featuring a variety of events connected to music, drama and cultural heritage at large.

The church of Sant’Agostino, among the innumerable historic landmarks in downtown Siena, enjoys the distinction of an 18th-century interior redesign by Luigi Vanvitelli, the same architect who projected the royal palace at Caserta by Naples, the Italian response to Versailles. Vanvitelli’s grand style provided the proper framework for Scarlatti’s Trionfo, a sacred drama which had no less than five productions between 1703 and 1710, in Rome and elsewhere, each time with a different title and changing contents. Such a success was probably due to the high social standing of its librettist -- none less than cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a distinguished patron of the arts who counted Scarlatti, Corelli and Handel among his many protégés.

The libretto he wrote for Scarlatti, however, is a rather dreary one. Not much happens other than a clever discussion among the disembodied principals (The Bride and The Bridegroom, Love and Eternity) on Catholic dogma about the Blessed Virgin. A sparse touch of drama is provided by allusions to the then-ongoing War of Spanish Succession and the general yearning for peace.

Martellacci-(Eternita')_Vaj.pngAlto Gabriella Martellacci as Eternity (left) and soprano Silvia Vajente as the Virgin Mary

It took director Alessio Rosati a good deal of imagination to sexy-up the script for the benefit of a contemporary audience, hardly conversant with either theology or early-modern history. Rosati’s flamboyant costumes for Love and Eternity, inspired by the French engraver Nicolas de Largillière, were a major resource. The mesmerizing body language of their characters conveyed by turns hope, thoughtfulness, mourning and pride, up to armed confrontation with overlong swords tainted with blood. It was all on a hyperbolic scale, more godly than human.

In contrast, the Bride and the Bridegroom (both played by women) wore timeless white robes and enacted the tender gestures of any married couple, even as they were symbols of the Almighty and the Virgin Mary. When asked about the rationale for that, Rosati ruled out any allusions to same-sex marriages, maintaining instead that he had in mind such a time-honored theological concept as God’s Motherhood. Fascinating, if a bit esoteric. A swarm of silent buth otherwise extremely active kids (God’s children?) added a touch of innocence; very few antics -- such as a throne, a spring mattress, some floating veils and little else -- rounded up the minimalist staging, which, in the end, was balanced and attuned to the music’s pace.

The score actually contains in its scarce hour-and-a-half duration a real bel canto treasure chest, with many up-tempo major-key arias and an astounding variety of formal devices: siciliano and tarantella rhythms, ostinato bass lines, chromaticism, ubiquitous obbligato string solos and a finely wrought duet for the finale. Not less impressive is the instrumental writing. An unusually rich orchestral palette, including trumpets, oboes and a flute, enhances the concise but compelling introductions to both acts in the abridged form of concerto grosso, as well as a number of martial flourishes (quite predictable for this oratorio in times of war) and brief incidental ritornellos, to end up with several of Scarlatti’s signature showstoppers: arias featuring voice-and-trumpet or voice-and-cello runaways. The mercurial cellist Jean-Marie Quint and gentle Marica Testi at the flute provided moments of virtuoso panache in the many obbligato passages stipulated by Scarlatti for their instruments. Both as a whole and in separate sections, the orchestra bravely accompanied the singers under the joint lead of its founder, virtuoso harpsichordist Ottaviano Tenerani, and of its young first violin Luca Giardini. The latter’s energetic bowing, combined with rapid embellishments and sensitive phrasing, was admirable throughout.

Trionfo-SSma-Vergine-Assunt.pngFinal scene

In the singing company, sopranos Maria Costanza Nocentini as an authoritative Bridegroom and Silvia Vajente as a shy and passionate Bride displayed elaborate coloratura, firm intonation, clarion tones easily piercing the church’s immense space. The rocky female alto Gabriella Martellacci (Eternity) and her male counterpart Francesco Ghelardini (Love) built an equally delectable contrast of vocal personalities: majesty and dignified disdain on her side, sensuous mellowness with a shade of effeminacy on his.

Before it comes to some postmodern arguing about gender bending, it should be noted that the original cast was entirely made up of castrati from the Papal chapel…

Carlo Vitali

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