Over the weekend I treated myself to another opera DVD, this time one which transported me back to the very earliest days of the art form, to Rome in 1632. At this date the Counter-Reformation was in full swing and the Baroque was just coming into being. Gianlorenzo Bernini, who would become the supremo of 17th-century Rome, was 25 and had been asked to design the stage set for Stefano Landi’s new religious oratorio Sant’ Alessio. The production available on this DVD attempts to recreate the feel of that first performance and I admit I came to it with some trepidation. This all felt a very long way from the exuberance of the 18th century.
To my astonishment, I enjoyed it almost as much as Artaserse, though in a very different spirit. As a beginner in Baroque music, I found it beautiful to listen to. As a theatre-goer, I felt that the performances were uniformly superb. As an art historian, I was thrilled by a production which felt so authentic and which included such a wealth of visual references. Who’d have thought a sacred drama telling the story of an obscure saint would be so immensely compelling?
St Alessio (Alexis) lived in around the 5th century and came from a wealthy but devout family in Rome. Conscious that worldly riches would inhibit his purity, he decided to renounce them all. On his wedding day he abandoned his wife and went to the Holy Land; but, when a fateful wind carried his ship back to Rome, he returned incognito to his parents’ house. Their kindness towards the poor was well known and, without recognising the impoverished pilgrim who turned up on their doorstep, they gave him a place to sleep. For the next seventeen years, Alessio lived under his parents’ stairs, striving for holiness and humility. He only revealed his true identity after his death, in a letter found clutched in his hand. Naturally, if you start thinking about it too closely, the idea that someone could live under his parents’ stairs for almost twenty years without being recognised, either by them or by his devoted but estranged wife, is just a little silly. Fortunately both saints’ lives and operas can cheerfully embrace the implausible – even though Alessio in this version is so startlingly young that seventeen years clearly haven’t gone by. The fact no one recognises him feels even more unlikely…
But let’s lose ourselves in the fiction, shall we? As Alessio strives for holiness, the forces of good and evil battle over his soul: the ambitious Demon, in particular, has no scruples about manipulating Alessio’s residual affection for his Mother and his wife (the Sposa) in an attempt to divert him from the path to glory. Landi’s oratorio surrounds the central religious drama with a vivacious medley: comic servants wearing Roman theatrical masks; demonic dances; colourful crowd scenes; and a brief Carnival parade. Quite contrary to expectations, it’s enormous fun.
As a production written for the Roman stage, like Artaserse, Sant’ Alessio had an all-male original cast. That’s reflected in the current production, which features a boys’ choir and eight countertenors as well as tenors and basses: there isn’t a single woman on the stage. I’ve already mentioned the oratorio’s distinguished Baroque pedigree, with the set designed by Bernini. I’m not sure how faithful the present set is to his designs, but it certainly preserves the essence if not the detail of his work. Everything takes place against the wooden backdrop of a classical building, whose wings move and rotate to reveal staircases, or to provide space for dances or crowd scenes. The upper storey of arched windows provides a setting for singers to perform, framed like saints in glowing niches. Even the lighting is historically authentic: the footlights are formed from a bank of candles, linked by trailing fuses. It makes for a stunning opening as fire leaps its way unassisted across the front of the stage. And the costumes. Good heavens, the costumes! The ‘men’ wear gorgeously patterned tunics in a late antique style, like figures come to life from a Byzantine mosaic. The ‘women’ seems to have wandered out of Titian’s Paduan frescoes: blouses with wide necklines and billowing white silk sleeves, colourful overdresses cinched at the waists, and diaphanous veils over their hair.
One of the most wonderful things about this production is that it preserves the ballets and dances which formed a key part of late Renaissance and early Baroque theatre. I’ve spent a lot of time recently studying 17th-century Italian costume drawings and it was fantastic to see this kind of design translated into reality here. My favourite examples were the little black-clad devils with red, orange and yellow streamers of flames fluttering from their backs as they performed a sprightly demonic ballet. Simply wonderful. The same six male dancers performed all the balletic intermezzi, down to the final dance of maidens around the figure of Religion, and they were astonishing. I’d always thought it rather silly that the ban on women performing in Rome meant that men had to get up in long skirts to dance the female roles – but here I learned just how skilful and convincing the illusion could be. I begin to sympathise with Sarrasine.
And if the costumes and dancers were wonderful, then the cast were even better. Part of the reason I dared to buy this was because Max Cencic and Philippe Jaroussky were in it and I knew they would be extremely good; there was some comfort in familiarity. (As I learn to love new voices, I’ll get more daring.) My faith in them paid off. Jaroussky is absolutely brilliant as the eponymous Alessio. The music suits his voice perfectly and his tone seems richer, purer and even more seraphic than it does in his recent recordings, while his acting is also very good. He suggests just enough inner torment that you find yourself feeling some warmth for a character who is essentially profoundly unsympathetic. As this production was filmed seven years ago, he seems startlingly young and fragile. With his oiled black curls, pale skin and reddened lips he really looks the part of a Baroque saint, as if he’s absconded from a Caravaggio picture, leaving his basket of fruit behind.
Cencic plays the Sposa, Alessio’s abandoned young wife, who languishes with his parents cherishing her thwarted love. His voice here is slightly lighter than it sounds now; it’s gentle and full of emotion; and, as always he’s a memorable actor: I found him captivating to watch. He doesn’t make an especially pretty girl (there’s a bluish five-o’clock shadow under the makeup), but he conveys an immensely graceful femininity through a repertoire of elegant gestures. (They reminded me of the stock gestures used by boy actors on the English stage at the same period; see Stage Beauty.) Through the sufferings of the Sposa, we come to appreciate the sheer scale of Alessio’s renunciation (and, to modern eyes, his selfishness), while an equally moving context is given by the anguish of his Mother, played here by Xavier Sabata. I have Sabata’s Handel album, but I haven’t yet come across him very much and he did a wonderful job. Older female characters played by men, whether nurses in opera or the dames in British pantomime, are too often comic foils, but Sabata gave the Mother immense humanity, dignity and pathos, and his surprisingly light, full and powerful voice was a lovely counterpart to Cencic’s.
There are three other voices new to me which deserve a special mention. Well, one isn’t completely new, because I have Terry Wey’s recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Valer Sabadus (a more angelic combination of voices is difficult to imagine). But I hadn’t seen Wey in action before. He was great in the dual role of Roma and Religione; his voice works incredibly well with this kind of sacred music and he had wonderful Baroque poise. Then there was Jean-Paul Bonnevalle as the Nurse, who was just mind-blowingly good; it’s a part that could easily be overshadowed by the bigger roles, but I thought his voice was remarkable without being showy and, like Sabata, he took a character which could have been overdone and performed it with innate grace. Finally there was Ryland Angel (who wins the prize for the countertenor with the best name). I didn’t actually have him down as a countertenor at first – I thought maybe he was just a very light tenor, and at any rate his voice had the gorgeous quality that you hear in some priests singing choral eucharists: light, piercing and incredibly elegant without losing any of its masculine timbre. Honestly, the more I hear the more I’m fascinated by the variety of voices and by the way that they can be combined to create such a richly-textured sound. And that’s even before you factor in Alain Buet’s Eufemiano (a baritone) and Luigi di Donato’s Demon (a bass), not to mention the boy trebles making up the ranks.
It was just such an intriguing experience, quite apart from the musical side of it. In lieu of a time machine, this is one of the ways I’m going to get closest to the sensation of being in 17th-century Rome; and I rather liked it. It may not have ousted the splendours of Vinci and Hasse from my heart, but it’s definitely given me more courage to try other early music; and I have to say that I enjoyed it far more on first impressions than Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea, which I also watched at the weekend… and which I found much less agreeable.