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Hyperion Records

CDA67771/2 - Cesti: Le disgrazie d'Amore
Venere e Cupido (detail) (1592) by Andrea Boscoli (1560-1607)
Villa Agostini della Seta Corliano / Photo by Fabio Muzzi
Recording details: February 2009
Villa Agostini della Seta, Corliano, San Giuliano Terme, Pisa, Italy
Produced by Sigrid Lee
Engineered by Roberto Meo
Release date: January 2010
Total duration: 153 minutes 32 seconds

'A lively and stylish performance' (Gramophone)

'Most of these singers are accomplished, but the male soprano Paolo Lopez as Cupid is truly exceptional. The sound is good and the music is well-crafted with some echoes of Monteverdi's Poppea' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A comedy of amorous intrigue, satirising the venal appetites of the gods in music that is graceful and shapely' (The Daily Telegraph)

'There's a freshness of invention in these early operas which is still immediately attractive today … musically there's much to appeal … this is a performance which invites sustained listening. Partly it's the sheer variety of voices and moods which helps conjure up the action in the theatre of the mind, partly it's to do with Cesti's powerful recitative and arioso, but in large measure it is to do with the variety of pacing, careful characterisation and engaging singing from the cast under the direction of Carlo Ipata' (International Record Review)

'Maria Grazia Schiavo produces characterful recitatives and shows herself mistress of Baroque rubato in her arias. Zanasi creates a sympathetic and beleaguered husband … Maria Cecchi Fedi is, as ever, wonderfully expressive and natural in the role of Friendship. The excellent countertenor Martin Oro makes a meal of his juicy part as old lady Avarice … Francesco Ghelardini, enlivens the small part of Courtier with his beautiful timbre' (Opera News)

Le disgrazie d'Amore
Part 1: Balletto  [1'31]
Part 1: Ballo  [0'29]
Ecco a darvi diletto
Amor, ch’è sì stimato,
Or schernito, oltraggiato
Co’ le disgrazie sue porge il soggetto
A i vaghi scherzi miei.
De’ favolosi Dei
Altre volte lo scherno anche s’udì.
So, for your enjoyment,
Love, who is so esteemed,
now ridiculed, insulted,
with his mishaps will provide the theme
for my delightful jests.
Even the fabled Gods
were ridiculed in olden times.

A delightful blend of slapstick and highly allusive banter, Cesti’s comic moral opera mocks the pagan gods and the morally reprehensible excesses caused by amorous passion.

Pietro Antonio Cesti (born in Arezzo, 1623; died in Florence, 1669) was, along with Francesco Cavalli, the most illustrious representative of the seventeenth-century Venetian school of opera composers. Like many Seicento artists, he had an eventful life embracing multiple activities, as singer, actor, composer and maestro di cappella; like Vivaldi he took holy orders; and, like the murdered Stradella, he died in murky circumstances (probably by poisoning) after an outstanding musical career. He was an itinerant composer, dividing his activity between Venice and the courts of Florence, Vienna and Innsbruck. The work recorded here dates from his period at the Viennese court, and the opera is characteristic of Viennese opera’s synthesis between the comical, parodic register typical of the Venetian aesthetic (of which Cavalli’s La Calisto is a remarkable example) and the moral, edifying dimension inherent to court opera.

Though of Tuscan origin, Pietro Antonio Cesti (born in Arezzo, 1623; died in Florence, 1669) was, along with Francesco Cavalli, the most illustrious representative of the seventeenth-century Venetian school of opera composers. Like many Seicento artists, he had an eventful life embracing multiple activities, as singer, actor, composer and maestro di cappella; like Vivaldi he took holy orders; and, like the murdered Stradella, he died in murky circumstances (probably by poisoning) after an outstanding musical career. Having been a choirboy at Arezzo cathedral and the church of S Maria della Pieve, he entered the Franciscan order of Friars Minor Conventual in 1637 and continued his musical training in Rome with Abbatini and Carissimi. In 1646 he became magister musices and organist at the seminary in Volterra; here he was ordained priest and met Salvator Rosa, whose correspondence is full of information about the composer’s life.

Unlike Cavalli, who virtually never left Venice apart from a disastrous trip to Paris, Cesti was an itinerant composer, dividing his activity between Venice and the courts of Florence, Vienna and Innsbruck. Although his output contains a large number of cantatas, a genre whose form he was one of the first to codify, he is noted above all as the composer of some fifteen operas, culminating in the sumptuous Il pomo d’oro. Nine complete scores have come down to us, including his first Venetian opera, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso (1651). Half a century before the Arcadian reforms, this work already emphasized the hero’s virtue in a period otherwise dominated by the figure of the effemminato anti-hero crushed by his passions. Nonetheless, the young Cesti roused the ire of his Catholic hierarchy by singing in Cavalli’s Giasone, one of the most anti-heroic operas of the Venetian school. Also in 1651, and again in Venice, Cesti premiered Il Cesare amante; in the following year he made his first visit to Innsbruck, where he was appointed maestro di cappella to Archduke Ferdinand Karl and revived his Cesare under the title of La Cleopatra for the inauguration of the Komedienhaus. It was in Innsbruck that he composed three of his greatest masterpieces: L’Argia (1655) in honour of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had converted to Catholicism and was about to begin her exile in Rome; Orontea in 1656, to a libretto already set by Francesco Luccio in 1649 and again by Francesco Cirillo (Naples, 1654); and, in 1657, La Dori, overo la schiava fedele, whose considerable success may be judged by the many revivals it enjoyed in Bologna, Ferrara, Florence, Venice and Munich.

Over the next five years (1657–62), Cesti spent most of his time in Rome, where he also occupied the function of singer in the Sistine Chapel, while still retaining his official position at the Innsbruck court. As Salvator Rosa opportunely remarked in one of his letters, ‘at the moment he is even capable of serving two masters at once, and most successfully’. From 1662 to 1665, the now adulated composer spent his second period in Innsbruck, where he lived not far from the archducal palace in a house that can still be seen today, opposite the Jacobskirche. In addition to La magnanimità d’Alessandro, performed in the year of his arrival, Cesti wrote a great many cantatas, mostly to texts by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni and Francesco Sbarra, the official court poets in Innsbruck. The composer’s last years constituted the apotheosis of his career and one of his most productive periods: Cesti was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to the imperial court in Vienna, and in the space of eighteen months no fewer than six new operas were performed, one in Venice (Il Tito in 1666), the other five in Vienna (including Nettunno e Flora festeggianti, Le disgrazie d’Amore, La Semirami, and his most celebrated, Il pomo d’oro). Several of his operas, among them Orontea, La Semirami and L’Argia, were subsequently revived, notably in the city of Venice with which the composer continued to maintain especially strong ties. The performance of Il pomo d’oro to celebrate the empress’s birthday in July 1668 was one of the most lavish a western court was ever to witness: twenty-five changes of scenery, dozens of characters and hundreds of supernumeraries on stage, a plot that resembles a compendium of Greek mythology, and machinery (by Burnacini) to match the prestige of the event—this alone would have sufficed to immortalize the name of Cesti. Towards the end of his life, he felt the desire to return to Italy, and it was in his native Tuscany, in Florence, that he died on 14 October 1669.

Le disgrazie d’Amore therefore belongs to the composer’s final period. Subtitled dramma giocosomorale, the work is characteristic of Viennese opera’s synthesis of the comical, parodic register typical of the Venetian aesthetic (of which Cavalli’s La Calisto is a remarkable example) and the moral, edifying dimension inherent to court opera. Following the admonishments of Ottonelli, whose pamphlet Della christiana moderazione del teatro of 1650 criticized the immorality of the Venetian drammi, Viennese operas of the last third of the seventeenth century from the sage pens of Sbarra and Minato are distinguished by their skilful blend of mockery of the mythological subjects and the didactic orientation of the narrative framework. In his address to the reader, the poet Sbarra explicitly states his intention of mocking the pagan gods and the morally reprehensible excesses caused by amorous passion: ‘Sì come nell’introdurre in questo Dramma giocoso alcune delle false Deità de’ Gentili, io non hebbi altr’oggetto, che deridere loro sciocchezza …’ (‘Just as, by introducing into this comic drama some of the false gods of the pagans, I have had no other purpose but to deride their folly …’). These words are incidentally almost identical to those used in the preface to Delia by Strozzi, who was himself merely taking up a poetic tradition inaugurated earlier in the century by Francesco Bracciolini in his mock-heroic epic Lo scherno degli dei (‘The gods derided’), published in 1618. The first illustration of this tendency in the still new genre of opera was Diana schernita by Parisani and Cornacchioli (Rome, 1629); it subsequently nourished Venetian dramas from Delia by Strozzi and Manelli (1639) to La divisione del mondo by Corradi and Legrenzi (1675). However, in Venice, these comic perversions of the mythological source, which also include Busenello’s first libretto, Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne (set by Cavalli in 1640), in which Cupid is called a ‘pygmy god of idleness and nullity’ and a ‘soldier in swaddling clothes’, alternate with others of a more explicitly apologetic nature, such as Faustini’s La virtù de’ strali d’Amore and Fusconi’s Amore innamorato, both also set to music by Cavalli in 1642, thus heralding the triumph of amorous passion in most of the city’s theatres. Cesti and Sbarra, for their part, resolutely adopt a position of merry denunciation: the serious moral purpose does not exclude amusement from its vigorous criticism of the ravages of love—quite the reverse, in fact.

The work opens with an overt domestic squabble between Venus and Vulcan, worthy of an opéra-bouffe by Offenbach. The goddess of beauty can no longer bear rotting in her loathsome husband’s noisy, smoky cave, while the responsibility for these incessant quarrels is immediately assigned to Cupid, who tries in vain to intervene between the two and is chased away, though not before biting the ear of the blacksmith god, already handicapped by his club foot. Here there are numerous criticisms of contemporary morals (the artifice of cosmetics to feign natural beauty), which continue at the end of the first act when the Cyclopes, Vulcan’s servants, take advantage of their master’s absence to indulge in the pleasures of gambling and wine. The moral dimension of the piece takes on greater importance than in the Venetian repertory through the substantial presence of the allegorical characters typical of court opera (Inganno, Adulazione, Avarizia, Amicizia). The emphasis is laid on the ever-increasing place of money, and this dominant but reprehensible value pervades the whole opera. As we are told in Act II Scene 2, ‘Così è lo stile;/Oggi tutto si vende,/ E può tutto ottener quegli, che spende’ (‘That’s how it goes;/today everything’s for sale,/and those who spend can have it all’), showing the point which the Venetians too constantly hammered home: ‘Che al fin chi sa bene/ Adulare, e ingannare, il tutto ottiene’ (‘For in the end those expert/at flattery and deceit gain everything’). Observing the financial dealings surrounding Cupid in the middle of Act III, Avarice remarks that, in this world, ‘people appreciate riches and not learning’.

Musically, the work is entirely typical of Cesti’s refined style. After a sumptuous sinfonia in two sections, the polystrophic prologue alternates between a stile declamato of great variety and metric flexibility and a lively refrain commensurate with the cheerfulness of the text. Here Cesti deploys all his talents as a skilled melodist and, like his contemporary Cavalli, an experienced man of the theatre. The closed forms as they appear in Sbarra’s libretto are mostly respected: the monostrophic aria for Venus in proparoxytonic rhythm [with the accent on the antepenultimate syllable—translator’s note] evoking the lashes she inflicts on her son (‘Storcignati’, Act I Scene 3), and, in the same scene, Vulcan’s colourful invective (‘O perfido Amore’); the polystrophic arias of Cupid (Act I Scene 5) and Avarice (‘Io non mi lusingo’, Act II Scene 4); the energetic, vehement aria for Vulcan (‘Signor bravo’, Act I Scene 7); the magnificent aria for Flattery that opens the second act, founded on a bewitching chain of coloratura; the many duets, between Venus and Vulcan (Act I Scene 2), Vulcan and Brontes (Act I Scene 4), Flattery and Deceit (Act II Scene 2), and Flattery and Friendship (Act II Scene 14); or the ensembles which conclude the three acts. But Cesti’s genius resides still more in his ability to twist the text to his advantage, placing right in the middle of a recitative an arioso that is invariably musically and dramatically apt, as in the numerous interventions of Cupid (‘Fu virtù di quell’Arco’, Act I Scene 3; ‘Mentitrici bellezze!’, Act I Scene 6). This device also offers a rhetorical interest when the same melodic cell with which one scene ends is reprised at the start of the following scene, with the two formally linked by an identical metrical scheme (‘Ho tanto, che basta,/Moneta ci vuole’, Act I Scene 6; ‘E che sì contrasta?/Che tante parole?’, Act I Scene 7). In this respect Cesti shows himself extremely faithful to the Venetian aesthetic, based on the two principles of contrast and surprise: the aria often appears unexpectedly, as in the fine short duo in chaconne rhythm between Cupid and Deceit (Act II Scene 2), or the piquant scene showing Flattery and Deceit disguised as a gipsy girl and a charlatan respectively (Act II Scene 6), whereas, conversely, certain closed forms are treated in declamatory mode, as with the significant change of tempo in Cupid’s strophic aria ‘A che porto al fianco l’armi’ (Act I Scene 5).

The composer’s expressive palette covers a broad spectrum, from the homorhythmic hammering in the Cyclopes scene to the musical figurations of the virtuoso aria for Flattery mentioned above, by way of the numerous instances in which the different musical forms follow and lead into each other with great subtlety. Particularly remarkable, in this respect, is scene 8 of the first act, where the trio of Cyclopes on a somewhat rough-hewn rhythm moves into an arioso for Vulcan with a ravishing melody, to be followed by a reappearance of the Cyclopes in a second trio with a much more assertive rhythm. Another example is provided by the arioso of Venus that leads into a duet with Vulcan (Act III Scene 7): here the same musical form is reprised, in chiastic fashion, at the opening of the next scene.

Le disgrazie d’Amore has two other notable features. First of all, the importance of sung declamation—‘recitar cantando’ as developed by the Florentine school (it will be recalled that both Cesti and Sbarra were Tuscans)—which is of remarkable expressive richness, for instance in the opera’s opening monologue for Venus lamenting her lot, and in the final scene, especially the interventions of Cupid. Then there is the substantial weight accorded, in this festive spectacle, to the many superb instrumental pieces, from the overture to the ritornellos accompanying the arias, culminating in the expressive ballets (the danced combat of the Cyclopes, the ballet of the monkeys) at the end of the first two acts. In the end, the constraints imposed by the court opera tradition to which this authentic masterpiece belongs are amply compensated by the great musical variety that characterizes the work, reflecting a synthesis of genres (Venetian parodic dramma, popular ‘regular’ comedy [the name given to Italian comedy—fully written rather than improvised—of the sixteenth century inspired by the classical models of Plautus and Terence. In its more elaborate literary manifestations it is often referred to as ‘commedia erudita’], and edifying allegory) which results in a ‘clearly identified operatic object’: the dramma giocosomorale.

Focusing on the tribulations of Cupid driven away on all sides, even by his own mother, Le disgrazie d’Amore, despite a literary style which does not achieve the refinement of men like Rospigliosi or Busenello, skilfully combines literary and musical forms. Its characters embody a resolutely pathetic view of humanity: Avarice keeps an ‘osteria’, an inn which might have been borrowed from some regular comedy, where Deceit appears disguised as a fortune-telling mountebank in order to get close to Friendship and, thanks to Cupid’s arrows, obtain her favours. Le disgrazie d’Amore thus stands revealed as a comedy of appearances which, in denouncing Love, makes of it no more than a market commodity. The necessity for a lieto fine—enshrined in the Horatian precept that one should both entertain and instruct—is no mere bow to convention. Like the later Metastasian heroic dramas, the happy ending possesses above all a heuristic and rhetorical value: the effectiveness of the demonstration requires the characters to pass through a moment of realization resulting in the restoration of an initially disrupted order. Hence the conclusion restores serenity to the relationship between Venus and Vulcan, who are now accompanied by a Friendship much more efficacious than an immature and blind Love, thus signifying that where constancy and control of the potentially deviant passions reign, harmony may truly triumph.

A note about the dances by Carlo Ipata
In the score of Le disgrazie d’Amore, Cesti marks the Balletto dei Ciclopi and Ballo delle Scimmie at the end of Acts I and II respectively, without supplying the music for these instrumental dances. The usual practice was to utilize dance movements by other composers, as was done in February 1667 when the balletti by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer included on this recording were incorporated in a staged production. Schmelzer’s balletti survive in two parts, written for harpsichord only; we have realized these in five parts, to achieve a texture more consistent with the other orchestral music in the opera, and to enable the alternation of soli and tutti passages in the various repetitions.

Jean-François Lattarico © 2010
English: Charles Johnston

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