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GRAMOPHONE ( 08 / 2018)
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Reviewer: Iain Fenlon

Starting with the earliest Italian operas, the prologue occupied the important function of preparing the audience for the main business, usually by outlining the central theme of the drama and pointing up its moral message. In the case of the first court operas, which were not produced and performed in commercial theatres, prologues also served the political purpose of flattering princely patrons. All this was achieved through the song of allegorical figures, whose dramatic function had been well established by Italian theatrical practice.

For this imaginative and beautifully delivered record, Enrico Onofri and Francesca Aspromonte have assembled an intriguing sequence of prologues (where necessary adapting those with dialogues), beginning with Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Caccini’s L’Euridice from the beginning of the 17th century and ending with Alessandro Scarlatti’s Gli equivoci in amore, first performed in Rome in 1690. In between, arranged in roughly chronological sequence, come three examples from operas by Cavalli and the majestic opening episode of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio. Later, with Cesti’s Il pomo d’oro and Stradella’s La pace incatenata, there is a distinct shift in the direction of prologues based on paired recitatives and arias.

Such an approach could easily have resulted in a dryly academic exercise but these richly sensuous performances are a delight as they traverse the stylistically varied terrain of the entire century. Rhetoric is the key not only to Francesca Aspromonte’s singing but also to Onofri’s direction. Speeds are dramatically varied even within sections; and although not everyone will favour the embellished style of the detailed instrumental interjections (particularly elaborate in the improvised harpsichord realisations), the overall effect is committed. Aspromonte brings an impressive range of vocal colour to the task, on full display at moments such as the highly dramatic reading of the opening strophe of the prologue to Cesti’s L’Argia. While the bright and silvery tones of her upper register are prominent features, there is also much expressive use of darker and warmer tones in these fluid and flexible accounts, packed with sensitive detail, and alive to the essential unity of words, music and meaning.

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