Stradella, the Caravaggio of music


Damien Guillon explains the lure of Stradella’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista

Damien Guillon
Damien Guillon

I first came across the music of Alessandro Stradella while I was a student at the Centre de Musique Baroque, hunting around for scores suitable for the alto voice. A colleague suggested looking at Stradella’s oratorios. I was immediately transfixed by the title-role of John the Baptist in his 1675 dramatic oratorio San Giovanni Battista, and the purity of the line especially in the aria ‘Io per me non cangerei’ – as sublimely beautiful as Monteverdi’s famous duet ‘Pur ti miro’.

Dubbed the ‘Caravaggio of music’, Alessandro Stradella’s infamy precedes his music. A fraudster who swindled the Catholic Church and a famous philanderer, he was pursued from Rome to Venice and then Genova, where paid assassins of jealous husbands finally cornered him. These colourful stories overshadowed his unique contribution to Italian opera and oratorio writing. Writing at a crossroads between styles – opera and sacred drama – and eras, he is the lost link between Cavalli and Handel. It was Stradella who invented the concerto grosso format, with a larger orchestra contrasting with a smaller continuo group (a concertino), and it was Corelli who followed him. This configuration of players gives the oratorio great dramatic power.

San Giovanni Battista was commissioned by San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, a church in Rome, and its popularity encouraged further performances in Modena, Florence and a return to Rome. John the Baptist denounces King Herod for his excesses and depravity in wanting to marry his brother’s wife. Salome uses all her guile and conniving in ‘Queste lacrime, e sospiri’ (‘these tears and sighs’) to flatter the King’s fragile ego and manipulate him, eventually taunting him to behead the prophet for criticising the monarch.


The role of Salome (sung in our recording by Alicia Amo) has a huge range. She appears with all the innocence of a young girl but by the end, her coloratura maximises her seductive power and her ultimate triumph – her vapid vanity shines through in her joyous aria ‘Su, coronatemi’, where she sings: ‘Come, crown me for the victory that has pleased. Come, wrap me in the glory…’) Herod, by comparison, is a weak monarch, easily manipulated and as hollow as his seductress.

The role of John the Baptist (sung by Paul-Antoine Bénos-Dijan) was written for the greatest castrato of the day – Giovanni Francesco Grossi, known as Siface – renowned for his performances of operas by Cavalli and Scarlatti. Stradella chose to focus on nobility and pathos to depict John the Baptist: his aria ‘Io per me non cangerei’ has the sweetness and purity of a man who has put his unflinching faith in God to protect him in the face of death. Instead of dramatic pyrotechnics, Stradella uses a small concertino to support his simple vocal line. The music is so modern and avant-garde with its sliding chromaticism.

I’m thrilled to have assembled a stunning array of young singers for this recording, which took place in Fontevraud Abbey. Although I could have sung the countertenor role of John the Baptist myself, I chose to pass it on to Paul-Antoine Bénos-Dijan, so that I could conduct my ensemble Le Banquet Céleste in a fully staged production at the Opéra de Rennes, where we hold a residency. Though it is an oratorio, Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista has a sense of psychological drama ideal for opera.

Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista is out now on Alpha.

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