Luca Franco Ferrari, cond; Silvia Piccollo (
); Elisa Franzetti (
); Vicky Norrington (
); Riccardo Ristori (
); Matteo Armanino (
); Il Concento Ch and O (period instruments)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94297 (67:51)
If the story is true, Alessandro Stradella, one of the more colorful composers of his or any age, avoided being skewered by assassins in Rome only by a hair’s breadth. It seems they finally tracked him down to a church, where he was rehearsing a work of his. The beauty of the music allegedly saved his life. Given the sensitive and emotional music in
, one can understand the clemency on that occasion. Whatever his own personal attributes, Stradella was one of the musical geniuses of the age.
In truth, it is not known exactly when the oratorio was written, and though Rome was the center for this genre in the 17th century, the composer certainly wrote such works there and in his exile in Venice. The librettist, Lelio Orsini, was from a prominent Roman family, but of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was commissioned by an oratory in that city. In any case, the story of Esther is one of the few in the Bible not to mention God, and the story focuses instead upon a rather nasty fellow, Haman, counselor to King Ahasuereus of Persia. The King has married the beautiful Ester, perhaps unaware that she is Jewish. Haman is grossly insulted by her cousin, Mordecai, who refuses to bow before him. As a result he gets the King to decree the slaughter of all Jews. Ester appeals to Ahasuereus, risking death with her unannounced appearance. At a special banquet, she spills the beans, and Haman finds himself condemned to die on the same gibbet he has prepared for Mordecai. This is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible, just the sort of piece that would appeal to the worldwise Stradella (who also wrote on other femme fatales in the Bible, Susanna and Salome).
The work is an example of
, meaning that the libretto is in Italian, rather than Latin. It is in two parts, originally to be divided by a sermon, and apart from the obvious principal characters, Orsini inserts a narrator (
) and a rather allegorical figure,
(Heavenly Hope). The story is altered to enhance the drama. It is Haman who convinces Ester to appear unannounced before the King, hoping for her self-inflicted demise. It is clear that he is a thoroughly nasty character, whose comeuppance is well deserved. Nonetheless, he has some of the best music, with nicely sinuous lines and jaunty dance rhythms. As a bass, he is extremely virile musically. One can hear the powerful gloating in the arioso “E fia mia cura” right before he concludes the first part with a vocal battle with Speranza, outdoing her melismatic lines with force and ease, so that she is sometimes reduced to a simple sustained line while he warbles away with his heavily ornamented part. Ester (soprano) is extremely emotional, with an old-fashioned nod back to the days of monody. Her recitatives are plaintive, deliberate, and sung arioso fashion. Ahasuereus (bass) is often accompanied by a lone trombone (or sackbut rather), lending arias such as “Sgombra il duolo” a distinctive gravitas. Mordecai (sung in a throaty voice by Vicky Norrington) is almost a non-participant. After a brief wailing about his fate in the first part, he essentially disappears, allowing the story to focus instead on his antagonist, Haman.
Apart from the single trombone, the remaining instrumentation is limited to a rather large continuo group. Whether this was his intent, conductor Luca Franco Ferrari has chosen to use it generously, with many improvised sections. The result is a vibrant, well-supported work that moves along at a judicious pace. This in turn makes the otherwise sparse setting more interesting musically and increases the dramatic content. Ferrari keeps the tempos fluid and exercises a highly disciplined control over his voices and ensemble. Riccardo Ristori’s Haman is absolutely engrossing, with a sense of line that brings out the various villainous moods of his character. His mastery of the often tortuous lines and his tone in the lower register are excellent. Silvia Piccollo’s Ester is wonderfully plaintive, precisely on pitch and flexible in expression. The result is a first rate performance that demonstrates the genius of Stradella and his ability to create a work that is highly dramatic and yet musically integrated. My only quibble is that, like most Brilliant Classics budget discs, one must download the text from the website. Despite this inconvenience, it is one disc that should be in any collection of 17th century music. Highly recommended.
Bertil van Boer