Scarlatti, A San Filippo Neri
The libretto of San Filippo Neri was written by the Venetian cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (a patron also of Corelli, Handel and Vivaldi), and it presents a series of dialogues between the three theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity) and St Philip Neri, the Florentine founder of the confraternity that helped to establish Roman oratorios – the prayer halls and then later the sacred music dramas nicknamed after them. The dialogues occur at various pivotal moments in St Philip’s life; the climax of Scarlatti’s score is the Saint’s breathtaking deathbed aria “Mio Gesù”, sung as he yearns to return to God’s presence (marked Largo, e sempre piano, and specified for strings without harpsichord). The oratorio was first performed at Ottoboni’s Roman residence, the Palazzo della Cancelleria, on March 26, 1705 (this is not clear from an otherwise superb essay by Scarlatti biographer Roberto Pagano, only available on the accompanying CD-Rom, along with the libretto).
Estevan Velardi and the Alessandro Stradella Consort have notched up an impressively broad discography of unjustly neglected Italian Baroque masters. This premiere recording of San Filippo Neri is typical of Velardi’s admirable zeal, worthy endeavour, natural pacing and the shapely string playing of his band. Mario Nuvoli’s recitatives are dry and strained, although he displays surprisingly flexible and mellifluous coloratura in the assertive nautical simile aria “Già mi sembra con prospero vento”, and sings tenderly in “Sei mia guida, e mio conforto” (a slow aria contemplating Christ’s Crucifixion; Scarlatti packs the string accompaniment with astonishing harmonies). Rosita Frisani’s effortful Charity sounds as if she consciously restricts a bigger voice not quite endowed with pinpoint accuracy, but she warms up nicely for some vivid embellishments during a swashbuckling trumpet aria that concludes Part 1 with a flourish (“L’alta Roma Reina del Mondo”). Manuela Custer’s Hope is more consistent, eloquent and compelling, not least when partnered in “Alma invitta” by lively strings that convey lightning strikes (elsewhere Scarlatti’s string writing brilliantly evokes a restless horse stamping its hooves). Countertenor Marco Lazzara sometimes makes heavy weather of phrasing, but Faith’s pronouncement “Di tue splendide virtudi” is sublime. The Alessandro Stradella Consort deserves credit for boldly going where no Baroque group has gone before and Velardi’s serviceable interpretation offers plenty of insights into the elder Scarlatti’s merits.