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Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Alessandro Stradella: San Giovanni Battista

Le Banquet Céleste: Damien Guillon (harpsichord/ conductor), Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian (countertenor), Alicia Amo (soprano), Olivier Dejean (bass), Gaia Petrone (mezzo-soprano), Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor), Thibault Givaja (tenor)

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A notorious libertine, in 1677 Stradella eloped with Agnese Van Uffele, the mistress of the Venetian Senator Alvice Contarini, to Turin where he was pursued and attacked by two henchmen in Contarini’s service.  Stradella recovered from his five sword wounds and continued to enjoy a dazzling career, but five years later he was murdered in Genoa, at the age of 42.  His assassin is unknown but, in Grove, Carolyn Gianturco suggests that his murder may have been instigated by one Giovanni Battista Lomellino who became jealous when he realised that an actress whom he had helped when she had been impregnated and abandoned, preferred to bestow her favours on Stradella rather than himself.

Stradella composed over three hundred works in a variety of genres, but it is his oratorios that are most well-known, especially La Susanna and San Giovanni Battista.  The latter was first performed in Rome on Palm Sunday in 1675, with performers reputedly including composer-violinist Arcangelo Corelli as well as eminent composer-musicians such as Pasquini, Lonati, Colista and  Stradella himself.  At that time, opera, which was flourishing in the public theatres of other Italian cities, was in Rome banned by the papacy, and thus confined to the private homes of the city’s aristocrats.  However, as this dynamic new recording of San Giovanni Battista by early-music ensemble Le Banquet Céleste, under the direction of its founder, Damien Guillon, confirms, there is an unusual and exciting dialectic between the sacred and the secular in Stradella’s Roman oratorios. 

The libretto by Sicilian priest Ansaldo Ansaldi draws upon the New Testament gospel according to Mark, occasionally quoting the biblical text, and presents the story of the confrontation between John the Baptist and Herod, as the former tries to persuade Herod to renounce his dissolute life with Herodias and her daughter Salome.  Ansaldi does not make use of a ‘narrator’ and instead concentrates on the direct exchanges between the two men.  The unfolding drama is tautly conceived: in Part One, following a sinfonia, John leaves the countryside and travels to Herod’s court, interrupting the festivities which are underway to celebrate the King’s birthday with a public demand that Herod give up his brother’s wife.  The enraged King has John the Baptist imprisoned and in Part Two the events leading up to his death ensue.  There is no dance by means of which Salome bewitches Herod: instead, she enchants through song.  Having ‘triumphed’, she joins Herod in a closing duet which opposes her exultation with his shame and despair.

Stradella packs much variety into the oratorio’s 80 minutes.  There are more than 40 arias, recitatives, duets and choruses, and these are accompanied by ever-changing combinations of instruments.  A concertino group, here comprising two violins and continuo (lute, cello, harpsichord and organ), is complemented by a concerto grosso of four violins, two violas, cello, double bass and lute.  There is a fluidity and freedom of style and timbre as the instrumental combinations are re-grouped.  The arias are mostly through-composed and the vocal idiom is flexible, with recitatives being especially melodious and ‘arioso’-like.  Throughout there is an incisiveness about the rhythm with creates a compelling and often tense energy, while the harmony throws up occasional surprises.  Sometimes the twists and turns – as when the Chorus of Disciples question John why he is travelling to Herod’s court where “only deceit and deception reign” and “words of truth are never heard” – we seem to hear the twists and turns of Monteverdi’s madrigalian rhetoric.

Even within numbers, one is constantly kept on one’s toes.  The opening Sinfonia, barely two minutes in length, begins with a confident, lively statement, then moves through dolorous suspensions and affective syncopations in a minor key, and finished with a brief boisterous gigue.  Le Banquet Céleste here and throughout balance bite with buoyancy.  The sound is bright and very ‘present’, perhaps a little too resonant at times, but it is as invigorating as Stradella’s own contrasts of tempo and mood.

Countertenor Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian establishes Giovanni Battista’s intensity and sincerity in the very first recitative, ‘Amiche selve, addio’, as he bids farewell to the woods that have kept him safe and provided tranquillity.  It’s a lovely liquidy voice, which flows with a fine sense of line through the succeeding short aria, ‘Deste un tempo a me ricetto’.  In these opening alternations between John the Baptist, the Choir of Disciples and a single Disciple (tenor Thibault Givaja), as John determines to travel to Herod’s palace to fulfil his mission, there is a tremendous sense of energy and anticipation, aided by Benos-Djian’s divisions which are tremendously precise and impassioned.   

When he arrives at Herod’s palace, a ferocious organ marks his presence; when he is condemned to prison, there is an emotive simplicity which is wonderfully communicative: “If you are the welcome token of death, bitter chains, I kiss you a thousand times.” Again, here Stradella slips through some chromatic loops which both pain and beguile.  One of the highpoints of expressive intensity is John’s aria, ‘Io per me non cangerei’, in which he welcomes the torments to come if that means others are spared: Benos-Djian shapes the chromatic droops beautifully, resolving phrases with gracious trills.  Here, the continuo sound is wonderfully rich and the lute eloquent in dialogue with the strings.  It’s the only da capo aria and the repetition of the opening section is particularly welcome.

Soprano Alicia Amo is terrific as Salome (Herodiade la figlia).  ‘Volin pure lontano dal sen’, in which she encourages Herod to put his cares aside, is sung with a lovely pure tone and seemingly guileless poise, but nevertheless conveys dangerous passion and desire as Amo communicates Salome’s underlying fervour and agitation.

Subsequently, Salome’s aria ‘Sorde dive’ is introduced with some heart-twistingly plangent contrapuntal string entries before the voice enters with a Handelian simplicity which is bitter-sweet: the way the instruments echo the voice, thereby dangerously multiplying her duplicity, is a Stradellian masterstroke.  Salome’s appeal to the “uncaring goddesses” closes with an astonishing chromatic twist which erupts in a virtuosic display of pique.  Here, too, there is superb control of dynamics, tempo and structure by Guillon.

Amo conveys Salome’s confidence and self-assurance in the opening aria of Part 2, ‘Vaghe ninfe del Giordano’ and the dialogue between voice, strings and lute is full of energy.  In Part 2 the relationship between Herod and Salome comes to the fore, and it’s grippingly intense as she becomes unrelenting in her demands for the head of the Baptist. “Why do you delay in comforting the hope of this anguished heart?” (‘Deh, che più tardi’) she presses: Amo’s dramatic power is evident in the subtle ‘leans’ and coloristic and dynamic variation, culminating in an astonishing virtuosic display which sinks to a burning chest voice.  No wonder Herod cannot not resist the seductive musical rhetoric of the ensuing ‘Queste lagrime, e sospiri’.  Salome sighs and yearns but Amo makes as aware, too, of her self-confidence: just as the harmony slips and slides, evading musical conventions, so Salome will not conform, Amo’s brilliantly articulated ornamentations confirming her dominance.  The closing tierce de Picardie somehow manages to sound both self-satisfied and meek.  This is a stunning ‘performance’ of the art of persuasion.

Olivier Dejean uses his authoritative bass to communicate Herod’s passion, anger and his inner conflict.  From the first he is both a king and a ‘man’.  In ‘Tuonerà tra mille turbini’ he furiously rejects John’s demands, in clean, finely chiselled passagework which descends to low, dark vocal realms.  Dejean executes the rapid and highly unpredictable runs and spirals with astonishing accuracy and agility.    

As Herod’s Councillor, tenor Artavazd Sargsyan, is earnest and direct in delivery, and his first full aria is accompanied by some thumping stepwise stamps in the bass, as he issues an urgent and forthright appeal to Herod not to err.  In the minor role of Salome’s mother, Herodiade, Gaia Petrone sings with a lovely shine to her mezzo-soprano.  Her single aria, ‘Figlia, se un gran tesoro’, is vigorous, clear and excellently projected– it’s ironic that such vocal sumptuousness is being employed to urge her daughter to beg Herod for the Baptist’s head.

The florid duet for Herod and Salome which ends Part 1 is balanced by a very different dialogue between the pair in the oratorio’s closing moments.  First, Salome exults in her triumph (‘Sù, coronatemi’) and again Amo’s virtuosity astounds: but, there is a self-destructiveness in her elaborate self-glorification.  Herod, by contrast, is alarmed by the Baptist’s distant voice (Chi nel comun gioire mi’) and, recognising his sin, sings of his repentance.  Dejean plummets to seemingly impossible depths, vocally embodying Herod’s dejection and despair.  The higher she rises, the lower he plunges.  Then, Stradella brings the two voices together: their melodies entwine but their words oppose, her rejoicing juxtaposed with his torment.  The contradiction is intensely dramatic but when the voices finally do unite melodically, there is no ‘resolution’: “E perché, dimmi, e perché?”, they sing, “And why, tell me, why?”

We can understand Herod’s lamentation, but why does Salome who has just sung of her blissful happiness, question its origin?  And, to whom are they speaking?  The audience?  God?  In the final line of the oratorio, Ansaldi has introduced ambiguity and uncertainty in ways which raise ethical issues that complicate the ‘moral’ of the biblical text.  Stradella grasps the opportunity his librettist has given him: the duet lasts barely two minutes and ends unexpectedly, Herod’s final “e perché?” cadencing on a quarter note on the first beat of the last bar.  Then, silence.  There are certainly no musical answers as Stradella leaves the protagonists’ questions floating in the air. Music and drama do not conclude, they simply cease.

Le Banquet Céleste communicate the conflicts – musical, ethical, theatrical – of Stradella’s San Giovanni Basttista – with tremendous insight and expressive skill.  Stradella’s irrepressible defiance of convention, in art as in life, both surprises and delights.

Claire Seymour

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