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Fanfare Magazine: 39:5 (05-06/2016) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

 

This two-CD set is comprised of selections, mostly but not entirely vocal, drawn from all 27 extant Cavalli operas. These are arranged chronologically across its two discs. We get to hear sinfonias, recitatives, ariosos, songs, duets, and arias, of varying length and complexity. Each piece is discussed, a few admittedly very briefly, others with at least some consideration given to the composer’s range of expressive devices, including in several instances his long-recognized ability to build tension around sudden shifts in poetic meter.

The performances are winning. I’ve noted before on several occasions my pleasure in Mariana Flores’s voice: In a disc devoted to Cipriano de Rore (Fanfare 39:1), she delivered “an emotive reading of … Non è ch’il duol me scemi without indulging in verismo vocal habits,” and in Zamponi’s Ulisse (Fanfare 38:1), her Venus sounded “wisp-thin, with a flicker vibrato that eerily drains away in expressing her disgust at Ulysses.” She is a vocal actress who uses her instrument to create character. Thus, in the prison scene recitative from Erismena, she faithfully mirrors the cascading emotions of the eponymous heroine by the use of dynamics, phrasing, sharpened consonants, and lengthened or changed vowels, without resorting to unmusical theatrics. Her lament for homeland and family in an aria from La Statira has little vocal plush, but lacks nothing in the way of phrased warmth; while the haunted recollection of love lost in Didone finds Flores excellent at delineating a short aria’s emotional range that veers between regret and defiance. The brief figurations in an incredibly catchy, teasing song from Egisto gives us at least a glimpse of her vocal agility, and an aria from Adelanta shows just how much lyrical beauty Flores can find in one of Cavalli’s memorable ostinato-based arias without the plummier sound of some of her contemporaries. It is a matter of successful analysis, detailed treatment, and a canny use of her best vocal features—especially, the bowing of tone. If this considerable range of performances are what Flores is capable of regularly, than she hasn’t been heard nearly enough in major roles on disc.

Occasionally featured as well is mezzo Anna Reinhold, in the few scenes recorded here that involve two characters. It would take more exposure to her voice to form an accurate assessment of it; but on the basis of the little I’ve heard in such works as Erismena and Artemisia, she holds her own against Flores. That’s in fact saying quite a bit.

Leonardo García Alarcón apparently pressed for this project out of enthusiasm for the scores of Cavalli, an enthusiasm I share. His instrumental forces aren’t slim, not with the continuo of Cappella Mediterranea being supplemented by the strings of Clematis, but they seem reasonable in the context of surviving payrolls from the most prosperous Venetian opera theaters during Carnival in the mid-17th century if only occasionally; and they form a good match when needed to the expressive treatment Cavalli gives to his emotionally swamped characters as they move through (and occasionally die from) life’s trials.

Like a number of other recent operatic recordings that offer numerous textual extras, this one is digest-sized: difficult to manage on a CD shelf, perfect for slipping in alongside your dog-eared copy of Montaigne’s essays. Jean-François Lattarrico writes a long, highly readable, extremely well-researched piece on Cavalli’s librettists, the formulae they deployed, and the stylistic characteristics in particular of the three he used most, for 22 operas. Ellen Rosand provides the astute commentary on each of the 40 cuts in the set, along with a section sketching the composer’s career, giving emphasis to what he brought to Venetian opera. There’s also a hagiographic prologue by Olivier Lexa, one of the text translators from Italian to French, who has the frankly fantastical notions that Cavalli directly influenced the love duets in Tristan und Isolde because he wrote the first love duets; influenced numerous Rameau infernal scenes because he wrote the first infernal scenes; and influenced Mozart’s Leporello because he wrote the first comic servant parts. Setting to one side the little matter of Cavalli’s teacher who did at least some of these things earlier—a man by the name of Claudio Monteverdi, of whom you have probably heard, but Lexa apparently hasn’t—the point is that none of the situations were owed to Monteverdi, Peri, Caccini, Cavalli, or the rest of that seconda prattica lot. It was due to their librettists, who were frequently poets with prestigious posts and international reputations.

Finally, the expansive Alarcón gets to write a lengthy piece that basically resolves into successive praise for one instrumental performer in his ensemble after another—aside from an extremely interesting short paragraph that comments upon the changing use of violins in Cavalli’s operas over time. Would there had been more of the same.

Sound is excellent; full texts with idiomatic French and English translations are supplied. Cavalli’s operas have drawn occasional attention both in performance and on disc since back in the early LP era and beyond, but rarely have the recordings made a good case for the composer’s extensive talents. Most recently, I found Claudio Cavina’s Artemisia (Glossa 920918; Fanfare 35:4) the best realization I’ve yet heard of a Cavalli opera, despite a few flaws (such as countertenor Alessandro Giangrande’s Sprechstimme-laden nurse, in a remarkably unfunny attempt to be funny). That’s now joined by this set. Both make an excellent case for the composer’s operas, and for using the finest performers to show just what we’ve been missing all these years. Highly recommended, to the point of being potential Want List content later this year.

 


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