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GRAMOPHONE (02/2022)
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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

Soprano Francesca Aspromonte follows her fine recital of Baroque operatic prologues (8/18) with an equally enterprising ‘concept’ album devoted to the biblical figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner. The sufferings and dilemmas of the two Marys were favourite subjects for Italian oratorios around 1700, most of them forgotten today. The prime exception is Handel’s La Resurrezione, in effect an unstaged sacred opera from a time when opera in Rome was banned by papal decree. Caldara’s La Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo, which provides two specially poignant arias, has received a couple of complete recordings but the other items here are real rarities. Several, including arias by the cellist-composer Giovanni Lulier and the Bolognese maestro di cappella Giacomo Perti, are recorded for the first time. Elsewhere Aspromonte’s choices range from a sober continuo aria by the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I, via the Virgin’s anguished scene at the foot of the Cross from Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Santissima Annunziata, to three spirited, melodically appealing solos by Handel’s operatic rival Giovanni Bononcini.

In a heartfelt if slightly gushing note, Aspromonte invites us to reflect on the spiritual conflicts of the Gospel’s two iconic female figures. Her commitment to their stories as told through music shines out in every number. With a warm, sensuous middle register and free-soaring top, her soprano is a notably colourful instrument; and she deploys it with subtlety, grace and a vivid sense of drama. Nothing is ever generalised. Aspromonte’s natural intensity and care for the sound and sense of the words are immediately revealed in the lively Lulier aria that opens the disc. Jousting with Boris Begelman’s solo violin, she mingles brilliance and passionate urgency in arias by Bononcini and Perti, while Magdalene’s vision of salvation in La Resurrezione provokes delirious whoops of joy.

Most memorable of all, perhaps, are Aspromonte’s grieving inwardness in the arias from Caldara’s La Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo and the detailed variety of expression she brings to the Scarlatti, from the musing sorrow of the opening to the blistering final aria, powered by scything, spitting strings. Here and elsewhere I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis match Aspromonte all the way in sensitivity and dramatic energy. Imaginatively planned, brilliantly executed, this is a disc guaranteed to give pleasure to any lover of the Italian Baroque with a sense of adventure.

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