“Mission” = AGOSTINO STEFFANI: Schiere invitte, non tardate (Alarico) Alarico il Baltha, cioè L’audace re de’ Gothi; Ogni core può sperar (Tanaquil) Servio Tullio; Ove son? Chi m’aita? In mezzo all’ombre … Dal mio petto (Anfione) Niobe, regina di Tebe; Più non v’ascondo (Rotrude) Tassilone; Amami, e vederai (Niobe) Niobe, regina di Tebe; T’abbraccio, mia Diva … Ti stringo, mio Nume (Creonte, Niobe) Niobe, regina di Tebe; Mie fide schiere, all’armi! (Iarba, Ufficiali di Iarba) I trionfi del fato; Suoni, tuoni, il suolo scuota (Erta) Arminio; Sposa, mancar mi sento … Deh non far colle tue lagrime (Tassilone) Tassilone; Non prendo consiglio (Ermolao) La superbia d’Alessandro; Sì, sì, riposa, o caro … Palpitanti sfere belle (Sabina) Alarico il Baltha; Notte amica al cieco Dio (Alcibiade) La libertà contenta; Combatton quest’alma (Enea, Lavinia) I trionfi del fato; A facile vittoria (Sigardo) Tassilone; Tra le guerre e le vittorie (Alessandro, Coro) La superbia d’Alessandro; Foschi crepuscoli (Aspasia) La libertà contenta; Dell’alma stanca a raddolcir le tempre … Sfere amiche, or date al labbro (Anfione) Niobe, regina di Tebe; La cerasta più terribile (Alcide) La lotta d’Hercole con Acheloo; Serena, o mio bel sole … Mia fiamma … Mio ardore (Anfione, Niobe) Niobe, regina di Tebe; Dal tuo labbro amor m’invita (Tassilone) Tassilone; Deh stancati, o sorte (Aspasia) La libertà contenta; Svenati, struggiti, combatti, suda (Alcibiade) La libertà contenta; Padre, s’è colpa in lui (Rotrude) Tassilone; Timori, ruine (Atalanta, Meleagro, Coro) Le rivali concordi; Morirò fra strazi e scempi (Henrico) Henrico Leone; Non si parli che di fede (Coro) – Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano/ Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera/ I Barocchisti/ Diego Fasolis – Decca 478 4732, 80:28 *****:
I broke a sweat just thinking about reviewing this disc; not only is it the second release in a row to feature Cecilia Bartoli dressed as a man (remember Sacrificium?) but it has been the subject of an enormous worldwide publicity campaign to initially keep the identity of the composer silent (including a series of “webisodes” designed to drop clues so the ever-attentive audience can zero in on the identity) and the release of a book by writer Donna Leon, “Jewels of Paradise,” a novel about Steffani and his legacy. So what exactly am I reviewing? There is almost too much to consider at this point, and when you couple this with the fact of it being released as “hardcover CD” (with a 170 page color booklet), regular CD, Blu-ray (a filmed concert version of about 60 minutes of the 80 given here), DVD of the same, and—yes, really—a “Mission” game for iPad, well, you can see we are entering into a whole new marketing world the likes of which have never been seen.
Leave it Bartoli to inspire such. A major label like Decca actually fought her on the release of her Vivaldi album back in 1999 fearing that the composer was too well known for his instrumental concertos and not his vocal music (they could have asked almost any college music student to find out differently) and that album went on to sell more than a million copies, giving the indomitable Ms. Bartoli a lot of clout in choosing her next projects. Agostino Steffani (1653-1728), an Italian composer, priest and diplomat who was active for most of his life in Germany, is not exactly unknown, there being about 15 albums that either feature some of his music or are dedicated entirely to it. Steffani himself is strange dude—most of his life was spent in the service of political and religious service, as an emissary for the Pope in religiously torn Germany, a priest performing the normal clerical duties one would associate with the office, some say a spy, others involved him in a possible murder case, and last but not least, as this album so vividly demonstrates, a composer of first rank, met and admired by Handel, and serving as a possible link between Monteverdi and the later masters of the high Baroque. This is a pretty busy life for anyone, and only someone as intellectually driven as he was, coupled with formidable skills in a number of important human activity areas, would allow for any one person to accomplish what he did. Missions, diplomacy, composition, writing, reading, all these are the normal occupations of a diligent mind obsessed with many activities. However, after 1690, the real period of his “worldly” career began, and with the exception of a few small years in the early 1700s when he revised some of his chamber duets, composition was at an end. His legacy, with a Stabat Mater, three madrigals, and numerous operas and instrumental chamber works provide an important link to composers like Handel, who had to be influenced by the high tessitura and wonderfully flowing cantabile movements that litter his catalog.
One only has to listen to the intensely moving “Amami, e vederai” from the opera Naomi to hear what this composer was capable of. Not until Handel would such music of such personal and exquisite passion be presented on a stage. And his brand of barn-burners also present modern performers with quite a challenge as well, fully up to anything that would come just few years after his death. I can think of no one but Cecilia Bartoli as being uniquely qualified to tackle a program like this. Now 46, her voice has gotten richer and darker. Never one for a lot of power in concert, in the recording center she manages to show just how versatile an instrument she really has, and the uncanny ability to shower us with exploding high notes after having just been plumbing the depths of her vocal range is an amazing thing to hear. Her technique is undiminished—she is still able to astonish in some of Steffani’s more vigorous passages. Everything in this recording is just right, from soloist to instrumentalists, to the affectionate and warmly personal way that she sings this music, leaving no emotional stone unturned. Superb all the way around, and every bit the knockout album that her Decca masters are saying it is. For once, the hype is equaled—nay, surpassed—by the product itself.