Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo

Indeed, among the giants of Baroque music immediately prior to
Bach and Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti has long been the most appreciated
composer in the academia, although his works were performed less than his
successors’. Now the pendulum, largely thanks to Grout himself, has
swung so far that even Alessandro Scarlatti’s lovely oratorios are
staged both at opera houses and in churches.

Despite the lamentable shutdown, half a decade ago, of the Scarlatti
Festival in the composer’s native Palermo, interest in digging up his
forgotten vocal works remains strong in Italy. One spearhead in the process
is Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante, whose 2004 recording of the
Oratorio per la Santissima Trinit‡ (Oratorio for the Most Holy
Trinity) is a must for Baroque collectors. Another is the Siena-based
ensemble Il Rossignolo, which this year chose Il Trionfo della Santissima
Vergine Assunta in Cielo
(The Triumph of the Most Holy Virgin Received
into Heaven) as the centerpiece for the first instalment of “Festival
Contemporaneamente Barocco”, a much promising series featuring a
variety of events connected to music, drama and cultural heritage at

The church of Sant’Agostino, among the innumerable historic
landmarks in downtown Siena, enjoys the distinction of an 18th-century
interior redesign by Luigi Vanvitelli, the same architect who projected the
royal palace at Caserta by Naples, the Italian response to Versailles.
Vanvitelli’s grand style provided the proper framework for
Scarlatti’s Trionfo, a sacred drama which had no less than
five productions between 1703 and 1710, in Rome and elsewhere, each time with
a different title and changing contents. Such a success was probably due to
the high social standing of its librettist — none less than cardinal Pietro
Ottoboni, a distinguished patron of the arts who counted Scarlatti, Corelli
and Handel among his many protÈgÈs.

The libretto he wrote for Scarlatti, however, is a rather dreary one. Not
much happens other than a clever discussion among the disembodied principals
(The Bride and The Bridegroom, Love and Eternity) on Catholic dogma about the
Blessed Virgin. A sparse touch of drama is provided by allusions to the
then-ongoing War of Spanish Succession and the general yearning for peace.

Martellacci-(Eternita')_Vaj.pngAlto Gabriella Martellacci as Eternity (left) and soprano Silvia Vajente as the Virgin Mary

It took director Alessio Rosati a good deal of imagination to sexy-up the
script for the benefit of a contemporary audience, hardly conversant with
either theology or early-modern history. Rosati’s flamboyant costumes
for Love and Eternity, inspired by the French engraver Nicolas de
LargilliËre, were a major resource. The mesmerizing body language of their
characters conveyed by turns hope, thoughtfulness, mourning and pride, up to
armed confrontation with overlong swords tainted with blood. It was all on a
hyperbolic scale, more godly than human.

In contrast, the Bride and the Bridegroom (both played by women) wore
timeless white robes and enacted the tender gestures of any married couple,
even as they were symbols of the Almighty and the Virgin Mary. When asked
about the rationale for that, Rosati ruled out any allusions to same-sex
marriages, maintaining instead that he had in mind such a time-honored
theological concept as God’s Motherhood. Fascinating, if a bit
esoteric. A swarm of silent buth otherwise extremely active kids (God’s
children?) added a touch of innocence; very few antics — such as a throne, a
spring mattress, some floating veils and little else — rounded up the
minimalist staging, which, in the end, was balanced and attuned to the
music’s pace.

The score actually contains in its scarce hour-and-a-half duration a real
bel canto treasure chest, with many up-tempo major-key arias and an
astounding variety of formal devices: siciliano and tarantella rhythms,
ostinato bass lines, chromaticism, ubiquitous obbligato string solos and a
finely wrought duet for the finale. Not less impressive is the instrumental
writing. An unusually rich orchestral palette, including trumpets, oboes and
a flute, enhances the concise but compelling introductions to both acts in
the abridged form of concerto grosso, as well as a number of martial
flourishes (quite predictable for this oratorio in times of war) and brief
incidental ritornellos, to end up with several of Scarlatti’s signature
showstoppers: arias featuring voice-and-trumpet or voice-and-cello runaways.
The mercurial cellist Jean-Marie Quint and gentle Marica Testi at the flute
provided moments of virtuoso panache in the many obbligato passages
stipulated by Scarlatti for their instruments. Both as a whole and in
separate sections, the orchestra bravely accompanied the singers under the
joint lead of its founder, virtuoso harpsichordist Ottaviano Tenerani, and of
its young first violin Luca Giardini. The latter’s energetic bowing,
combined with rapid embellishments and sensitive phrasing, was admirable

Trionfo-SSma-Vergine-Assunt.pngFinal scene

In the singing company, sopranos Maria Costanza Nocentini as an
authoritative Bridegroom and Silvia Vajente as a shy and passionate Bride
displayed elaborate coloratura, firm intonation, clarion tones easily
piercing the church’s immense space. The rocky female alto Gabriella
Martellacci (Eternity) and her male counterpart Francesco Ghelardini (Love)
built an equally delectable contrast of vocal personalities: majesty and
dignified disdain on her side, sensuous mellowness with a shade of effeminacy
on his.

Before it comes to some postmodern arguing about gender bending, it should
be noted that the original cast was entirely made up of castrati from the
Papal chapel…

Carlo Vitali

image_description=Alessandro Scarlatti
product_title=Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo
product_by=A Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco production
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Siena, October 11, 2008
product_id=Above: Alessandro Scarlatti