Performers: Soloists/ Les Arts Florissants/ La Maitrise de Caen/ Wm. Christie
Studio: Virgin Classics LC7873 [Distr. by EMI]
Video: 16:9 widescreen color
Audio: DTS 5.0; DD 5.0; PCM stereo
No region coding
Length: 162 minutes
Only 25 years after Monteverdi’s epochal 1607 opera Orfeo was performed in Mantua, the flowering of the new vocal art form sweeping through northern Italy had expended its living energy. What the Florentine Camerata had given birth to in 1598 with the largely experimental La Dafne, and what Monteverdi had illuminated with his rare genius by producing the first operatic masterpiece, had stalled in its development. Because opera was not yet a public art form, private performances were the life’s blood of this modern attempt to bring ancient Greek theater to life through music. And private performances in the north were declining.
By 1632, the excitement and energy of the new musical drama had drifted southward to Rome. This was fortunate because the church was locked in a struggle with the forces of the Reformation. Constantly searching for a means of making herself more alluring to the faithful, art seemed a natural method for self re-invention. So the Baroque era was born. What followed was art of such richness and sumptuous beauty and an expressiveness of such eloquence that the old religion seemed glamorous once more. Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII oversaw the Baroque explosion with the great artist Bernini in charge of building works such as Saint Peter’s and the Barberini Palace. Composers like Stefano Landi began writing beautiful operas in Rome that enticed the public. It was in the Bernini-built Barberini Palace that Il Sant’ Alessio premiered in 1632.
This opera is an example of hagiography. Alessio, later known as Saint Alexis, was the son of a powerful Roman Senator. At the beginning of the 5th century he married a beautiful young girl from a very good family. On their wedding day, without even waiting for the day’s festivities to end, Alessio said farewell to his wife. Offering no explanation, he simply walked out the door. We later learn that he married the young woman intending all along to leave her, so that he might prove the seriousness of his intention to seek God. He disappears for 17 years while his young wife dutifully waits for him, convinced that he will return one day. He does eventually return, disguised as a beggar. He is employed as the most menial of servants by his unsuspecting wife and family. Like Harry Potter, Alessio sleeps in a cupboard beneath the stairs. For the next 17 years he lives on bread and soup and keeps his identity hidden. Before dying, he writes his life story in which he finally reveals his identity. The church rewarded Alessio for what it considered his self-abnegation by declaring him Saint Alexis.
In Il Sant’ Alessio we observe for the first time the separation of solo singing into two clearly defined types: recitative and aria. The melodic declamation of “Orfeo” is now drier, more like the later recitative of Italian opera. Melody and items of musical interest are now concentrated in the arias. This is a major development. The slow-fast, two-section form of the overture later became the accepted pattern in the 17th century opera overture. Modern Italian opera is being born. Because the performance was in Rome, the church did not allow women on stage. All the roles were performed by men, mostly castrati. Because William Christie was intent on recreating this work as accurately as possible, eight counter-tenors are used on this DVD. We hear a marvelous range of counter-tenor performances, exhibiting a full panoply of technique. All of them are splendid but Philippe Jaroussky as Alessio is a cut above the others. His voice has an unforced beauty of tone that does not sound artificial. In fact, comparing it to a recording of the last castrato still alive at the turn of the 20th century, their voices sound eerily similar. If you have not heard Jaroussky sing, it is a fascinating experience. If counter-tenors are your cup of tea, you cannot do better than this DVD. This is a truly wonderful recording in all respects. Les Arts Florissants conducted by Christie sound resplendant. Their playing is superb. The direction, staging and costumes are equally brilliant. Because of the high quality of the performances and the importance of the work in operatic history, this Virgin Classics DVD should be in any serious Baroque opera collection. The DVD presentation is equally superb. Filmed in high-definition last year, the image clarity is excellent. Sound in PCM stereo is rich and full, while Dolby and DTS 5.0 surround sound sacrifice a little fullness for greater spatial accuracy and a nice sense of airiness around the voices and instruments.
– – Mike Birman