Two world-class period instrument groups–France’s Ensemble Matheus and Italy’s Europa Galante–have the spotlight in this program offering Vivaldi, Handel and Telemann. American mezzo Jennifer Larmore gives a stunning performance of arias from two Baroque operas that were top hits in their day: Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso.
The group’s founder, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, brought Ensemble Matheus to the Library in February 2008. Their striking performance of Telemann’s concerto for flute and recorder surprises with an exhilarating finale–fabulous solo playing and vigorous rhythmic stamps from the orchestra. Telemann may have been influenced by virtuoso gypsy musicians, documented in a 1730 manuscript known as the Uhrovska collection.
Ensemble Matheus: Since 1991, Ensemble Matheus has been an impressive presence on the early music scene, playing in prestigious venues like Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The group’s versatile performances, with works ranging from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries played on both period and modern instruments, have drawn critical acclaim.
Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conductor: Born in Corsica, violinist and conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi founded the Quatuor Matheus in 1991, forerunner of today’s larger ensemble. He has appeared as soloist and conductor with the Ensemble in the major festivals and venues in France and throughout Europe, as well as in Indonesia and Asia.
Jennifer Larmore: Perhaps the most-recorded mezzo soprano onstage today, American singer Jennifer Larmore has starred in the world’s prestigious opera houses and recital halls—Brussels to Buenos Aires, Hong Kong to Sao Paulo. Her roster of distinguished collaborators has included Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Riccardo Muti, and Charles Mackerras.
Europa Galante: Violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi founded the group in 1990 to draw the international public’s attention to a new Italian presence in the interpretation of Baroque and Classical music on original instruments. The ensemble has toured throughout the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, and South America.
Fabio Biondi: Born in Palermo, Fabio Biondi has performed with period-instrument ensembles including Capella Real, la Chapelle Royale, and Les Musiciens du Louvre. With a repertoire encompassing three centuries of music, he has collaborated as soloist and conductor with such orchestras as Santa Cecilia, European Baroque Orchestra, Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the English Concert.
Vivaldi Sinfonia from la Senna festeggiante, RV 693
Vivaldi Concerto in D minor for Viola d’amore and Lute
Fabio Biondi, Baroque violin
Vivaldi “Oh ingiusti numi!…Anderò, chiamerò,” from Orlando Furioso
Handel “Dall’ondoso periglio…Aure, deh, per pieta,” from Giulio Cesare
Jennifer Larmore, soprano
Telemann Concerto in E minor for Flute and Recorder
Luis Bedeschi, recorder
Jean-Marc Goujon, flute
Handel: Dall’ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pietâ, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare
Savlo mi porta al lido
Il mio propizio fato.
Qui la celeste Parca
Non tronca ancor lo stame alla
Ma dove andrò? E chi mi
Ove son le mie schiere?
Ove son le legioni?
Che a tante mie vittorie il
Solo in quest’erme arene
Al monarca del mondo errar conviene?
Aure, deh, per pietà
Spirate al petto mio,
Per dar conforto, oh dio! al mio dolor.
Dite, dov’è, che fa
L’idolo del mio sen,
L’amato e dolce ben
Di questo cor?
Ma d’ogni intorno io veggio
Sparse d’arme e d’estinti
Segno d’infausto annunzio
al fin sarˆ
Aure, deh, per pieta, etc.
From the perilous billows
I was brought safely to shore
By my propitious destiny.
The celestial Fate
Has not yet severed the thread of
But where shall I go? And who will
Where are my troops?
Where are the legions?
Which to so many victories
paved the way?
Alone on these desert sands
The ruler of the world must wander?
Ye breezes, in pity
Blow upon my breast
To give comfort, O God! to my grief
Tell me, where is
The idol of my breast
The beloved and sweet goodness
Of this heart?
But everywhere I see
Arms and corpses scattered
In this unfortunate arena:
Sign of the ill-omened forecast of what
is yet to be.
Ye breezes, in pity, etc.
Vivaldi: Oh inguisti numi! from Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso
Oh ingiusti numi! O fati!
O avverse stelle!
Troppo fiero _ il mio duolo,
e l’onta mia!
Ti perdo, empio Ruggiero.
Io giˆ riveggo,
in Aldarico ancor la mia rivale!
Tutto per me _ fatale.
Torna il senno ad Orlando
e senza forza _ in fin la mia maggia.
Oh ingiusti numi! etc.
Andero, chiamero dal profondo
l’empie furie del baratro immondo,
chiedero negl’abissi vendetta
dell’offeso, e tradito mio amor.
Oh unjust gods! O fates!
O adverse stars!
Too fierce are my grief
and my shame!
I lose you, wicked Ruggiero.
I now see again
in Aldarico my rival!
Everything for me is fatal.
Orlando returns to his senses
and without power my magic is ended.
Oh unjust gods! etc.
I shall go and call out of the depths
the evil furies from the foul abyss,
and I ask the depths vengeance
for the offence, and my betrayed love.
Program notes are provided by EMI/Virgin Classics
Used by permission
Our most common knowledge about Antonio Vivaldi deals with his music that is completely Italian in concept and flavor: concertos, operas, Latin sacred pieces, etc. Yet Vivaldi was a cosmopolitan personality, traveling periodically, dedicating music to patrons in several northern countries, and publishing in Amsterdam. Even in his native Venice, he occasionally composed for some event involving a foreign dignitary. This was the case with the serenata (secular oratorio), La Senna festeggiante (The Seine Feted). In November 1726, the French Ambassador to Venice, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy, made his "public entry" into the city-state, and the serenata was composed and performed to celebrate that event.
La Senna festeggiante is a large-scale work. Its opening sinfonia leads to twenty-one vocal numbers in its first part. The second consists of a French ouverture and fifteen vocal numbers. The point of the work is to praise France and its monarch, and this is carried out in allegory. The allegorical characters of The Golden Age (L’età dell’oro) and Virtue (La Virtù) wander the earth in search of true happiness, finding it finally on the banks of The Seine (La Senna), also portrayed as an allegorical figure.
The Baroque Italian sinfonia was an instrumental curtain-raiser heard at the beginning of operas, but it was also used to begin other large-scale vocal works, such as serenatas. Built of three compact sections or movements in a tempo pattern of Fast-Slow-Fast, the sinfonia was soon exported to other instrumental forms, notably the concerto and the early symphony. Vivaldi’s concertos nearly all follow this pattern. This is the tempo pattern for the present sinfonia. The style is an international mixture. Musical gestures in the French style may be too subtle for our ears, but they would not have been missed by the French ambassador. Modern historian H.C. Robbins Landon writes of the serenata, "It is, in short, music of great sophistication, as befits a tribute to the country where that commodity has always been found in supreme abundance."
In the early eighteen century, two national styles dominated instrumental music. Italian sonatas and concertos emphasized virtuosity, exciting rhythms, operatic vocal-style melodies, and sophisticated counterpoint (fugue, etc.). French instrumental music was derived much more from the theater. Its elastic rhythms derived more from spoken poetry, and melodies showed the influence of the melodic flow of the French language. Ornamentation—sometimes very complex—was of capital importance, and the style of a performance was the chief value.
Many musicians of the time strove to combine these two national styles. For example, several of J. S. Bach’s cantatas amalgamate or partake of both styles. François Couperin composed a set of works titled Les goûts réuni in which he carried out his ideal of "unified tastes" meaning the blended combination of Italian and French styles.
Since its invention in the mid-seventeenth century, the viola d'amore has always been an unusual instrument with an enigmatic character, famed for its distinctive timbre and often associated with the night. It is perhaps on account of this nocturnal quality—delicate, mysterious, and sensual—that this violada braccio (played on the arm, as opposed to the viola da gamba, was played on or between the knees) acquired the appellation d'amore. Sound quality of the instrument derives from the fact that it is often tuned to the principal notes of the tonic chord, which gives rise to frequent harmonics during performance. The sound is soft and tends to be slightly nasal and suggestive of a nonwestern musical tradition. The effect was accentuated from the end of the seventeenth century by the addition metal strings under the fingerboard, which respond to the vibrations of the played strings. Thus, the instrument played by Vivaldi would have had six principal strings and six sympathetic strings.
The Concerto for viola d'amore and lute in D minor, RV 540, was written for a concert at the Pietà in Venice on March 21, 1740, in honor of Frederick August II, the Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. One of the finest examples of Vivaldi's late style, the concerto is notable for the unprecedented subtlety of its musical diction—an aspect that was not to be repeated. The orchestra plays with mutes, and through this misty sonority we hear the two solo instruments. Their nostalgic sound quality produces an atmosphere of complicity that is worlds apart from the standard double concerto, which tends to come across more as a duel. By this time Vivaldi had little more than a year to live, and he knew, even before his mysterious departure from Venice, that his life was already behind him. The strange minter with which this work ends seems to illustrate this final dance.
Program notes provided by EMI/Virgin Classics
Used by permission
The success of the opera seria during the first half of the eighteenth century hinged significantly on the popularity of the castrati—exceedingly gifted and highly trained male singers who had undergone the extremely perilous, not to mention painful, dismemberment. Done before the onset of puberty the procedure, called orchiectomy, impeded the growth of the vocal chords, giving the castrato the high voice of a boy soprano or alto with the lung power of an adult. Because of St. Paul’s interdiction prohibiting women from participating in church services, the best choirboys were selected by the clergy for the procedure, often with the consent of the boys’ parents, and thereafter sent to conservatories for a thorough musical training. The first castrati appeared in Spain around 1550, and starting 1565 they were found in the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Despite the formal prohibition by the Church (and consistent denials of the practice), an estimated four thousand boys from age eight and above underwent the operation, hoping to acquire wealth as singers in opera, church choirs, and royal courts. By the 1640s castrati could be found in church choirs throughout Italy.
The Church also disapproved of women theatrical performers due to their association with prostitution and loose morals. Nonetheless, the opera seria, specifically the aria da capo with its obligatory repeat, became the principal and most lucrative vehicle for the castrati’s vocal prowess. In these arias they expressed universal emotions such as pity, sorrow, despair, and love, with incredible breath control, volume, dazzling fioritura, and a range of three to four octaves.1
Although their physical appearance was obviously unmasculine, displaying instead the fleshy shapeliness of a woman’s body, they were cast as heroic characters because their disproportionately long arms and legs vis-à-vis their torsos, garbed in the elaborate costumes of the day, gave them a larger-than-life presence onstage. Castrati were the international rock stars of their time, commanding the highest fees, filling the theaters’ coffers, and adored by audiences of both sexes throughout Europe, except in France, where Italian singers were banned and castrati, in particular, were considered eunuchs or cripples.
Vivaldi, Handel, and Gluck all wrote operas for castrati. (So did Telemann, a longtime friend of Handel, but his extant operas have been relegated to oblivion.) Vivaldi claimed to have written ninety-four operas; to date forty-nine operas have been identified as authentic, among them La Fida Ninfa, performed at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico for its reopening in January 1732. We know of at least two castrati who sang for Vivaldi, Giovanni Carestini (best known for his association with Handel) and Raffaello Signorini. But for Orlando furioso, first performed at the Teatro San Angelo in Venice in the fall of 1727, Vivaldi opted to cast the Venetian contralto Lucia Lancetti, protegée of Princess Violanta of Tuscany, for the title role. The role of the sorceress Alcina (whose exit aria is sung this evening) was written for Vivaldi’s protegée, Anna Giró (nicknamed Annina of the Red Priest).
Handel was a staunch champion of the castrati. Beginning with Rinaldo, the first opera he wrote specifically for London, he cast a castrato as the lead, often in the title role. Premiered at the Queen’s Theatre Haymarket on February 24, 1711, Rinaldo, based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata, deals with the ouster of the Muslims from Jerusalem by the Christians during the First Crusade (1096-1099).
The role of Rinaldo was sung by the Neapolitan alto castrato Nicolò Grimaldi, better known as Nicolini, who also created the title role in Handel's Amadigi in 1715. He first appeared on the London stage in 1708 in Alessandro Scarlatti’s Pirro e Demetrio, and remained in the city until 1717. The inimitable Charles Burney called him "this great singer, and still greater actor" and Joseph Addison (co-founder with Richard Steele of The Spectator) praised him as "the greatest performer in dramatic Music that is now living or that perhaps ever appeared on a stage."2
With Giulio Cesare in Egitto Handel triumphed over Giovanni Bononcini in their fabled rivalry, causing the Italian’s departure from England. The opera was first performed at the King’s (the former Queen’s) Theatre Haymarket on February 24, 1724, with the alto castrato Senesino in the title role. Born Francesco Bernardi in Siena (thus the stage name), Senesino debuted in Venice in 1707 and was singing at the Court theatre in Dresden when Handel invited him to London. According to Quantz, Senesino was a "majestic figure," with a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice…perfect intonation, and an excellent trill. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivaled…. His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble.3
As an actor, however, Senesino left much to be desired. "Senesino continues to comport himself badly enough," wrote the impresario Count Francesco Zambeccari, "he stands like a statue, and when occasionally he does make a gesture, he makes one directly opposite of what is wanted."4
As the primo uomo of the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1719 by a group of English noblemen expressly for Italian opera seria, Senesino created seventeen leading roles for Handel. The relationship between the two was often contentious; according to a contemporary writer "the one was perfectly refractory [while] the other was equally outrageous."5 Yet in 1730, two years after the dissolution of the Academy, Handel re-hired him to sing in four more new operas and in the English oratorios Esther and Deborah. Mutual animosity came to a head in 1733, when Senesino abandoned Handel’s company and joined the rival Opera of the Nobility, which had lured all but one of Handel’s leading singers. Here he shared the stage with the famous soprano castrato Farinelli until he left England in 1736.
As first singer in his new company, Handel hired the soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini, whose vocal range surpassed that of all other castrati in London. Carestini sang the title role in Ariodante, based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, that opened Handel’s first season at Covent Garden on January 8, 1735. Burney applauded Carestini’s "powerful and clear soprano," Hasse praised him for the "most perfect style of singing," and Quantz marveled at his "extraordinary virtuosity in brilliant passages."6
The supremacy of the castrati lasted through Mozart into the nineteenth century.7 Believed to be the last opera written for a castrato, Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto was performed at Teatro de la Fenice in Venice in 1824. The last castrato to sing in London was Paolo Pergetti in 1844. In 1870, Italy finally outlawed castration and in 1903 the newly-elected pope, Pius X, forbade the hiring of castrati in church choirs. The last known castrato was Alessandro Moreschi (born 1858), who never sang in opera but spent most of his professional career in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. He died in 1922, the only castrato—already past his prime—whose voice has been preserved in sound recordings.
–Tomás C. Hernández, Music Division, Library of Congress
1. To approximate the vocal range of the celebrated castrato in the film Farinelli, the voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and of soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska were fused digitally). Naomi André , in Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera, considers this "manufactured" voice as "an apt metaphor for the historical castrati whose voices were altered via their surgery and then greatly manipulated in the six to twelve years of vocal training in conservatories." (Return to text)
2. Quoted in Winton Dean: "Nicolini," Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 14 January 2008), <http://www.grovemusic.com> (Return to text)
3. Quoted in Dean, "Senesino," Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 14 January 2008), <http://www.grovemusic.com> (Return to text)
4. Quoted in <http://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Senesino> (Return to text)
5. Ibid. (Return to text)
6. Quoted in Dale Monson: "Carestini" Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 14 January 2008), <http://www.grovemusic.com> (Return to text)
7. Mozart wrote for several castrati in his early opera seria, as well as his last operatic work, La clemenza di Tito, first performed in 1791 in Prague with soprano castrato Domenico Bedini as Sesto. Likewise, the 1773 solo motet Exsultate Jubilate was written for soprano castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. (Return to text)
Last Updated: 12/07/2009