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CD Reviews: Europe's libraries turn up forgotten Baroque opera and sacred treasures

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The lavish period-style production of Leonardo Vinci’s La Partenope premiered by Neapolitan historical performance conductor Antonio Florio in 2004 is now released on CD from a live performance in 2011.

Just like people as they age, history forgets far more than it remembers. Fans of Baroque and Early Music are reminded of this several times a year with the release of previously unrecorded treasures found in European ducal, university and municipal libraries.

This summer’s album releases brought treats by two early-18th century Italian composers: the opera La Partenope (La Rosmira Fedele) by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) as well as a Mass and setting of the Stabat Mater by Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677-1726).

Both composers exemplify the Italian style of florid vocal lines underpinned by rhythmically lively accompaniment. In both cases, the vibrant period-instrument performances are compelling, making for a rich listening experience.

(For a link to more information, click on the artists’ names at the top of each review)

Leonardo Vinci, La Partenope (Dynamic)

This 2-CD world-premiere recording from 2011 of a live performance of La Partenope is a treat from beginning to end, mainly thanks to the fabulous work of conductor Antonio Florio and his period-instrument orchestra I Turcini, which he founded in 1987.

Much of the singing is fine, as well, but the voices of the all-Italian cast are so distinctive that each is pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Mezzo Sonia Prina is dark, dramatic and powerful in the title role of this opera, which is centres on Partenope, the founding muse of the city of Naples.

The full plot is as convoluted as this opera’s genealogy. In an example of stealing and borrowing that would tie up a 21st century copyright tribunal for a decade, composer Leonardo Vinci used a pre-existing libretto by Silvio Stampiglia and much of a 1722 version set by composer Domenico Sarro.

You see, Vinci had presented is own take on Iphigenia in Tauris at the annual carnival in Venice in 1724 that was so well received, that he was asked to produce another before the end of the season. In his mad dash Vinci used all of Sarro’s recitatives and then borrowed from his own piles of music to write all-new arias, for which he had to mangle Stampiglia’s words in order to make them fit.

Vinci wrote his new arias in the bold style of Vivaldi, and anyone listening even two or three times would be forgiven for thinking the music is by the Red Priest.

Because Venetians were not likely to be impressed with a dramma per musica about Naples’ founding figure, Vinci changed the title to Rosmira fedele. George Frideric Handel picked up seven of Vinci’s arias for a pasticcio opera, L’Elpidia, which he staged in London in the spring of 1725. The full opera had another performance in Italy that June, then was tucked away, not to be seen again until the end of the 20th century, and not to be performed until Florio & co. presented it in 2004 at the Festivall dell’Aurora, complete with ballet and battle scenes, and with the same cast as on this recording.

(It’s thanks to Handel and the British Library that we have a full manuscript.)

Here is a trailer for Florio’s production, followed by the Overture, first aria (“Te dell’eccelse mura,” sung by Sonia Prina) and opening chorus “Viva Partenope” from the second live performance at the Baroque opera festival in Beaune in 2004:

Bononcini, Messa, Stabat Mater (Naïve)

There is a wonderfully Germanic contrapuntal quality to Antonio Bononcini’s five-part Mass, given a hefty kick of Italian verve by Rinaldo Alessandrini and the instrumentalists and singers of Concerto italiano in this world-premiere recording.

The sound, for those familiar with Baroque music is something like the sprigtly offspring of Christoph Graupner and Antonio Vivaldi. The music is exquisite, ornate, complex and and powerfully complementary to the text of the Mass (which is included in the booklet), as it alternates between full choir, solos, duos, trios and quartets.

The Mass, a recent discovery in the library of the Conservatory of Music in Florence, hasn’t been published yet, so, hopefully, this persuasive recording will help inspire other groups to perform it in concert.

Alessandrini’s notes do not tell us when the Mass or the accompanying Stabat Mater were created, but the album was recorded at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, which suggests that these pieces were written while the Italian Bononcini was employed as the Viennese court’s music director between 1705 and 1713.

This would make the Stabat Mater a generation older than the most famous one of the period, by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Bononcini’s creative use of dissonance, solo voices and dialogue between soprano and mezzo/countertenor makes for an evocatively tragic piece, performed with great care.

Here, to give a taste of this substantial, affecting piece is a less colourful, less committed reading by Esteban Velardi and the Complesso Vocale e Strumentale Camerata Ligure:

John Terauds


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