Aside from Carissimi’s Jephte and the oddity that is Emilio de Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima, e di Corpo, it’s hard to think of a 17th-century oratorio that is still part of the contemporary repertoire. This new release from Sony Classical might be dressed up as a star vehicle, but is really a bold and beautifully researched showcase for a repertoire badly in need of a champion.
To encounter Scarlatti’s San Casimiro, re di Polonia, Gabrielli’s San Sigismondo, re di Borgogna or Porpora’s Il Verbo in carne for the first time through their duets is to enter by the back door. Duets, as Giovanni Andrea Sechi’s generous booklet-notes make clear, are the exception rather than the rule in these oratorios, and it’s good to have them interspersed here with arias that inevitably display greater stylistic variety and musical sophistication.
Giovanni Colonna’s aria ‘Su l’arco d’amore’ from Salomone amante is all graceful, filigree melody and sensuous, dovetailing accompaniment in the violins, a starry advertisement both for Colonna’s work itself and for Spanish soprano Nuria Rial, whose vocal agility and purity are as striking as ever here. She’s at the fore also in Pasquini’s more emotional and expansive ‘Vaga rosa’ (Sant’Agnese) and the lyrical ease of Bononcini’s ‘Cor imbelle’ (La conversione di Maddalena), but it’s young countertenor Valer Sabadus who gets the more athletic arias – fiery and explosive in Porpora’s ‘Quasi locuste che intorno’ (Gedeone) and Caldara’s glorious ‘Si pensi alla vendetta’ (La frode della castita).
In duets, Sabadus’s smoky, rounded countertenor makes an effective foil for Rial’s bright soprano, bringing depth and colour to the blend, while retaining his own tonal identity. If these numbers are less distinctive than the arias, then they’re still attractive, gently appealing pieces, especially when enlivened by the crisp, interventionist accompaniments of the Kammerorchester Basel, led from the violin by Julia Schröder. A lovely change from the many Handel duet discs on offer.