Tormento d’amore: Italian love laments from Ian Bostridge and Cappella Neapolitana

The booklet article by the musicologist Dinko Fabris which accompanies Tormento d’amore – Ian Bostridge’s most recent recording, with Antonio Florio’s Cappella Neapolitana – is titled ‘From Venice to Naples and back’, alluding to the development of opera in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  As Fabris explains, the opening of public theatres in Venice in 1637 saw Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) rise to artistic and entrepreneurial pre-eminence in the city, before the emergence of younger rivals such as Antonio Cesti (1623-69) and Antonio Sartorio (1630-80) in the second half of the century began to nudge him from his position of dominance. 

Simultaneously, as Cavalli’s reputation spread across Europe, so the dissemination of his operas in the southern Italian states prompted local composers such as Francesco Provenzale (1632-1704) and Cristofaro Caresana (1640-1709) – who, respectively, had learned their craft making arrangements of Cavalli’s operas for performance in Naples and singing roles as part of the troupe, Febi Armonica, which toured Cavalli’s operas throughout Italy – to compose their own operas in a new ‘Neapolitan’ style.  This melody-dominated style flourished in the eighteenth century in the hands of composers such as Nicola Fago (1677-1745) and Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730), the latter impressing Handel and Vivaldi, both of whom presented pasticcio arrangements of Vinci’s work.  Vivaldi’s staging in Venice of Rosmira Fedele of 1738, which included music by Vinci and others set to the libretto of Partenope, brought the operatic journey full circle.

This is the round trip traced by this disc.  The recital also seeks to challenge the common narrative that in the second half of the eighteenth century the tenor voice emerged from relative obscurity to play an increasingly prominent role in the vocal works of Italian composers of the late Baroque and early Classical periods, its growing popularity intertwined with the decline of the castrato.  Instead, it is argued that Cavalli, Provenzale and others ‘included tenor parts of great substance’ in their operas, though Fabris acknowledges that the compass of these tenor roles was often closer to the register of a present-day baritone, and that it was really only with the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, written in Naples in the early eighteenth century, that what we might think of as the ‘modern’ tenor voice was assigned leading roles.

Ian Bostridge starts his journey with ‘Misero, così va’ from Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo.  It’s perhaps a slightly odd choice given that the opera, written for the 1667-68 Carnival season was not actually performed in Cavalli’s lifetime.  The letter to the reader with which Aurelio Aureli prefaced his libretto explains that Cavalli’s setting of his account of the debauched sexual proclivities and brutal murder of the last Roman emperor, Heliogabus, was dropped at the last minute and replaced by an opera of the same name by the 27-year-old Giovanni Antonio Boretti.  Perhaps the once liberal Venice now required more edifying public entertainment?  Or, perhaps the 65-year-old composer’s musical style was considered old-fashioned in contrast to the flashy canzonettas of the young Boretti? 

Whatever the answer, Bostridge begins with this lyrical lament which the booklet suggests is for Eliogabalo (a castrato role) but which is in fact sung in the opera by Alessandro Cesare, the Emperor’s cousin and junior co-ruler, whose beloved Gemmira is subject to an increasingly extreme series of seduction ruses by the eponymous megalomaniac sex addict.  As the disc’s title suggests this is a programme of love scorned, unrequited and bemoaned, and this aria is typical in having its fair share of rhetorical outbursts of despair, complaint and pique, with ‘treacherous beauty’ causing Alessandro to suffer an ‘unhappy soul’ and emit ‘languid sighs’.  It’s the sort of sensuous lament that had made Cavalli’s name twenty years earlier, and Bostridge sings it beautifully – though seldom leaning in the direction of period idiom – using the text with characteristic care and attention to detail, and modulating dynamics and tone colour, to convey the essential nobility of Eliogabalo’s eventual successor.

The short recitative is expressively articulated, and the textual meaning of the aria pointed.  One could be in no doubt of Alessandro’s indignation that his fidelity has been rewarded only with bitter suffering – the rich body of violins weep in heartfelt sympathy in the between-phrase echoes and elaborations – nor that ‘loveliness and loyalty’ are ne’er bedfellows, so agonised is Bostridge’s shaping of the stanza-closing phrase ‘No si trova mai’, a tierce de Picardie adding to the plaintive tint of the concluding stanza.  Cappella Neapolitana sway with a seductive lilt above the affecting descent of the ground bass.

Il Tito was composed during Antonio Cesti’s musical directorship at the Innsbruck Court Theatre and premiered in 1666 at Venice’s Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  Its unfathomable erotic entanglements centre around the figure of Berenice, betrothed to the Lycian king Polemone, wooed by both the Syrian emperor, Titus, and his jealous brother Domitian.  In ‘Berenice, ove sei?’ Polemone veers between serene yearning and frenzied anger.  Bostridge sings the former episodes with wonderful lyricism – one feels the throbb in Polemone’s heart as the vocal line heats up as it rises, “Luce degli occhi miei!” (Light of my eyes!) – while the rage episode (rather mildly dramatised by Cesti) skips along neatly.  Florio coaxes a rich palette of colours from his players who tenderly stroke the doleful, drooping suspensions, and it’s nice to hear Bostridge echo these inflections when delicately decorating the da capo.

Only two of Francesco Provenzale’s operas survive in the form, more or less, in which they were first staged, and we hear from both of them here.  La Stellidaura vendicante was first presented in a private performance in an aristocratic villa in the Neapolitan suburbs in the autumn of 1674, its title alluding to the quest of the heroine to avenge the death of her beloved Armidoro at the hands of Orismondo whom she has spurned.  In ‘Deh, rendetemi ombre care’, Armidoro begs for Stellidaura to be restored to him.  Florio establishes a beguiling siciliano-like lilt and Bostridge judiciously colours the simple melody, capturing the guileless sincerity of the anxious youth.  In Il sciavo di sua moglie (1672) noble men are shown to be similarly enslaved by love, when the Greek warriors Teseo and Ercole become enchanted by the Amazon queen Ippolita against whom they are waging war, while her sister Melanippe catches the heart of Timante (who’s actually her disguised husband Leucippus, believed dead).  The latter’s ‘Che speri, o mio core?’ is a beautiful arioso, the wilting melody of which Bostridge shapes with sensitivity, deepening the weight of Timante’s despair in the melismatic elaborations of the da capo as the sparse accompaniment sinks to ever darker depths. 

We’re back in Venice for Leonardo Vinci’s Siroe, re di Persia which was composed for the 1726 Carnival season and from which Bostridge presents two arias.  In the first, ‘Se il mio paterno amore’ King Cosroe struggles to decide whether to punish his eldest son Siroe whom he erroneously believes is guilty of rape and treason; in the second, ‘Gelido in ogni vena’, believing Siroe dead, he rues his actions.  In the latter, the pulsing strings and wavering vocal line are presumably designed to depict the blood which Crosoe describes as running cold through his veins, though Vinci’s setting is oddly sweet-toned and gentle.  By contrast, Vivaldi’s setting of the same text, in an aria for the title character in Farnace (1727), is masterly, the chilling drips of icy rain which the composer borrows from the Largo of ‘Winter’ forming a rhythmical backdrop to the slow, pained descent of overlain solo violins.  Bostridge’s searing melody makes one feel every icy stab of unbearable grief in Farnace’s heart, as he stands before the tomb which he believes houses the body of his only son: dynamic variety, vocal accents, heightening of the text, a darkening of the vocal tone, skilfully executed ornament – all serve to convey a despair which the music – by turns halting and explosive, tormented and tender – seems literally to embody. 

If, inevitably, the prevailing mood of these introspective plaints is forlorn and the pace unhurried, then the disc does offer moments of brightness and vigour.  Nicola Fago studied under Provenzale at the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini between 1693-95, returning to work there from 1705 to 1740.  Moses’s urgent warnings of the carnage and terror about to be unleashed by a wrathful Heaven – in ‘Nuove straggi, e spaventi’ from Il faraone sommerso (1709) – are both imposing and nimble, with voice and strings vying for sprightliness.  The aria is preceded by a Sinfonia from the opera, and throughout the disc such instrumental items – stylishly played by Cappella Neapolitana – are woven between the arias, thereby creating something of the effect of the alternation of short songs, dances, arioso and recitative common in these Neapolitan works.

Upon moving to Naples, the Venetian Cristoforo Caresana found employment as a tenor soloist in the city’s Royal Chapel, where he later became organist, before succeeding Provenzale to the post of Maestro di Cappella at the Tesoro di San Gennaro in 1699.  ‘Tien ferma Fortuna’ from his opera Le avventure di una fede is my first encounter with his music.  Bostridge breezes through its spirals and wriggles as the princely protagonist sings of his faith that Fortune will hold her wheel steady for him.  Alessandro Stradella’s Il corispero was written in Rome during the 1670s, and the simple running figure which courses through Crudarte’s brief Act 1 aria, ‘Soffrirà, spererà’ – and which seems ill-suited to express the textual meaning – is made to dance lightly by both violins and voice.  

There’s a ‘folky’ feel about some of these arias which reminds one that these gracious and melodically straightforward airs often seem to occupy a sort of middle ground between the convoluted coloratura of the later opera seria style and a simple folk idiom which emphasised the text.  Opera composers, from Naples and beyond, also wrote Neapolitan songs.  So, it’s fitting, then, that Tormento d’amore ends with the traditional song, ‘Lu cardillo’, in which the strings’ cheerful guitar-pizzicato accompanies a relaxed duet between Bostridge and two dulcet fiddles. 

It’s a charming end to a captivating disc.  Baroque purists may have a few quibbles, but Bostridge groupies will surely love it.  And, there’ll be an opportunity to hear Bostridge, Florio and Cappella Neapolitana reprise their fascinating programme live later this year at Wigmore Hall.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Florio (director), Cappella Neapolitana

Antonio SartorioL’Orfeo: Sinfonia; Francesco CavalliEliogabalo, Act I: Io resto solo? … Misero, così va’ aria di Eliogabalo’; Alessandro StradellaIl corispero, Act I: ‘Soffrirà, spererà’; Pietro Antonio CestiIl tito, Act I: ‘Berenice, ove sei?’, L’Argia: Sinfonia; Cristoforo CaresanaLe avventure di una fede: ‘Tien ferma Fortuna’; Francesco ProvenzaleLa Stellidaura, Act I: ‘Deh rendetemi ombre care’, Il schiavo di sua moglie: Sinfonia, Act I: ‘Che speri o mio core’; Giovanni LegrenziIl totila: Sinfonia; Leonardo Vinci – Siroe, Act I: ‘Se il mio paterno amore’, ‘Gelido in ogni vena’; Nicola FagoIl faraone sommerso: Sinfonia, Act I: ‘Nuove straggi e spaventi’; Antonio VivaldiFarnace RV 711, Act II: ‘Gelido in ogni vena’; Anonymous – ‘Lu cardillo’

Warner Classics 9029503707 [68:51]