United Kingdom Luigi Rossi, Maurizio Cazzati and Lorenzo Allegri, L’Arpeggiata: L’Arpeggiata ensemble / Christina Pluhar (director), Wigmore Hall, London 1.12.2017. (VV)
Rossi – Sinfonia; Vaghi Rivi; Dove mi spingi, Amor; Sol per breve momento; Ballo (Il palazzo Incantato); Mio ben, teco il tormento; Dal imperio d’amore; Dormite, begl’occhi; Lasciate, Averno (Orfeo); Begl’occhi, che dite; Gelosia ch’a poco a poco; Questo piccolo rio; Se dolente e flebil cetra; La bella più bella; Al soave spirar d’aure serene (chamber cantatas)
Cazzati – Ciaccona
Allegri – Canario
Musicians: Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano), Christina Pluhar (theorbo), Doron Sherwin (cornetto), Judith Steenbrink & Adriana Alcaide (violins), Lixsania Fernández & Rodney Prada (viola da gambas), Josetxu Obregón (cello), Francesco Turrisi (harpsichord, organ, percussion), Haru Kitamika (harpsichord, organ)
L’Arpeggiata, the early-music ensemble founded by Christina Pluhar in 2000, returned to Wigmore Hall with a spectacular programme: superb in its execution and thrilling for its insights into the atmosphere of musical ferment at the dawn of opera. The group is unafraid to venture into genre-defying projects (e.g. fusing Baroque music with jazz), but this was an evening firmly focused on the ground-breaking 1600s.
The ensemble takes its name from the Toccata Arpeggiata by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c. 1580-1651), a composer and performer of music for lute and theorbo in the Rome of the Barberini’s ascendancy under the pontificate of Urban VIII (born Maffeo Barberini). Also the keyboard player and composer Luigi Rossi (c. 1597 – 1653) gravitated in that sphere: he was employed by Antonio Barberini from the late 1630s until his death. By contrast, Lorenzo Allegri (1567-1658) was a composer and lutenist at the Medici court in Florence for over fifty years; he wrote chiefly instrumental music, including a sinfonia and eight suites of dances. Maurizio Cazzati (1616-1678) worked first in Bologna and then at the Mantuan court, contributing innovations to instrumental music, such as sonatas for trumpet.
The programme placed centre-stage the output of Luigi Rossi: his two operas – Il Palazzo Incantato and Orfeo – and some of his chamber cantatas. Most probably born in Torremaggiore (Puglia) and trained in Naples, Rossi had certainly moved to Rome by 1620, as documents show him then in the service of Marcantonio Borghese, who was close to the Spanish Crown. Rossi gradually moved to the Francophile camp: he became organist at the French church in Rome in 1633, the year of Antonio Barberini’s appointment as Cardinal Protector of France, and he left the Borghese in 1636. By 1641 he was working on Il Palazzo Incantato for Antonio Barberini, whose household staff he formally joined in 1642.
The opera, first performed at the Barberini palace in February that year, is based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The story would have been familiar to contemporary audiences, but the opera was innovative. It featured an array of differentiated elements: recitatives, arias, trills, duets and laments, with vocal melody thus playing the dominant role; gone was the indistinctiveness ascribed to others’ earlier recitatives – neither secco nor arias – by Rossi’s contemporary, the musicologist Giovanni Battista Doni. In his chamber cantatas (we know of nearly three-hundred) Rossi had explored varying styles and forms, and he was now experimenting with their possibilities on a much larger canvas. Il Palazzo Incantato may thus lack the musical and dramatic unity of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, performed in Venice only the subsequent year, but it is a milestone in the evolution of the art form.
Rossi followed Antonio Barberini to France after the latter fled there in 1645. At the request of Cardinal Mazarin – born Giulio Mazzarino, and eager to import Italian culture – he composed Orfeo, which premiered at the Palais Royal in 1647. It was unlike previous operas on the theme of Orpheus: as in Il Palazzo Incantato, tragedy and comedy sit side by side, with score and libretto taking the public through fast-moving emotions; the sprawling cast includes gods, Fates and Graces; the opera brings together a range of styles and forms, some influenced by French taste; the mise-en-scène was so lavish that it became synonymous with the extravagance of Mazarin’s rule, though Rossi’s music gained high praise. The Royal Opera House presented the work at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2015, highlighting its fine ensemble writing and emotional power.
L’Arpeggiata’s instrumentalists and the Italian mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli gave a mesmerising performance. Some pieces, like Cazzati’s Ciaccona, showcased the bravura of each player in turn. Doron Sherwin on the cornetto, Judith Steenbrink at the violin, Josetxu Obregón at the cello and Francesco Turrisi at the harpsichord had choice parts, but every single one of the nine members is a superlative soloist. Christina Pluhar at the theorbo directed, modulating to perfection the balance of the ensemble’s sound and yielding the music’s expressive nuances, from the warmth of love to the dissonance of distress.
Bridelli, who burst onto the operatic scene in 2007 aged only twenty-one and has since performed all over Europe, carried the vocal line with dazzling assurance. Her repertoire is wide but includes a great deal of early music, and her mastery of it showed. ‘Dove mi spingi, Amor?’ saw her passing through the gamut of emotions embedded in its constituent arioso, recitative and arietta sections. Her warm timbre and velvet passaggi belied the wide tonal range of ‘Sol per breve momento. Dormite, begl’occhi’ was particularly poignant as her voice and the orchestration (in L’Arpeggiata’s arrangement, instruments took on the other two vocal parts) conveyed both pain and consolation; Lully famously imitated this piece in his trio, Dormez Beaux Yeux (1670). Bridelli’s rich low- and middle-register and impeccable diction made for an exquisite rendering of ‘Begl’occhi che dite’, while ‘Questo piccolo rio’ showed off her vocal agility and her control in sections of higher tessitura. In the dramatic scena ‘Al soave spirar d’aure serene’, she expressed the variety of feelings – from despair to reflection and elation – involved in this narrative for accompanied solo voice.
The depth of knowledge, thoughtfulness and sheer musicality evinced by L’Arpeggiata’s programme made the performance a true privilege to witness – whether listeners are familiar with the Baroque repertoire or new to it, they could not hope for better interpreters. Incidentally, whilst Il Palazzo Incantato deserves attention in its own right, it also provides illuminating context for works such as Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso (1727), set in the sorceress Alcina’s rather than the sorcerer Atlante’s enchanted palace. The summer 2017 production of Vivaldi’s version at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, with contralto Sonia Prina and I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis, was reviewed by me (see here) and will be reprised at La Fenice in April 2018. If today we can discover the marvels of Baroque music, it is because of the commitment and collaboration of superlative forces like L’Arpeggiata and Bridelli and of the intelligent programming by leading venues.