Hasse (The) Fiery Serpents in the Wilderness
Johann Adolph Hasse enjoyed a long association with Venice and was buried in the quiet church of San Marcuola by the Grand Canal in 1783. His first documented trip to the city had been 53 years earlier, when his opera Artaserse was premiered at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, and his talent came to the attention of several Venetian ospedali, the charitable institutions which looked after young women and often provided them with a remarkably advanced level of musical training. Hasse was officially appointed maestro of the Ospedale degli Incurabili in about 1735-39, and it was probably during this period that Serpentes ignei in deserto was composed for the Incurabili's female singers and instrumentalists.
The libretto presents arias by characters such as Moses and Joshua when the Israelites are cursed for their disobedience in the wilderness. Jérôme Correas directs an honest performance; although it is perhaps a good thing that the reverberant acoustic of the live recording made at Ambronay blurs some dodgy intonation from the violinists of Les Paladins. Despite the oratorio's origins, Correas avoids having an all-female cast by including countertenor Robert Expert, whose weak singing mars one of the score's loveliest arias (“Dolore pleni”, which portrays the penitence of the afflicted Israelites). Valérie Gabail and Stéphanie d'Oustrac are both outstanding for smoothly delivering Hasse's fiendishly difficult coloratura in a way that brings out the dramatic weight and melodic intensity of the writing. Each aria on this superbly packaged recording demonstrates Hasse's noteworthy inventiveness but one suspects that the reputation of the composer will not be fully restored until at least the equivalent of this three-star musical treatment is given to some of his more adventurous operas.