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Francisco António de ALMEIDA (c.1702-c.1755)
La Spinalba (1739) [206.51]
Ana Quintans (soprano) - Spinalba; Luis Rodrigues (bass) - Arsenio; Inês Madeira (mezzo) - Elisa; Mário Alves (tenor) - Leandro; Fernando Guimarães (tenor) - Ippolito; Joana Seara (soprano) - Vespina; João Fernandes (bass) - Togno; Cátia Moreso (mezzo) - Dianora)
Os Músicos do Tejo/Marcos Magalhães
rec. Salão Novo of the Instituto Superior de Economia e Gestão, Lisbon, 15-23 November 2011
NAXOS 8.660319-21 [3 CDs: 65.00 + 66.08 + 75.43]

Experience Classicsonline

Even the dates of Francisco António de Almeida are speculative, although it is thought he was killed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. His comic opera La Spinalba was definitely given in Lisbon in 1739, and seems to have been his last essay in the genre. It was subsequently neglected until a revival in 1965, and has been performed in London.Although contemporary with Handel’s last operas in London, it looks forward to those of the classical period rather than back to those of the baroque, despite its continued adoption of the da capo tradition of arias. Given that it was an opera buffa rather than an opera seria, the use of castrati was avoided and at least all the roles are taken by singers of the correct gender.
Not that gender seems to be a particular concern in the plot of La Spinalba. What we have here is the usual baroque farrago of cross-dressing, disguises, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and so on, which not surprisingly causes the father of the heroine to have a mental breakdown and which are only finally resolved at the curtain.
Reviewers have detected pre-echoes of Mozart’s comic operas and even - in the bewitchment scene for the deluded Arsenio - influences on Salieri’s Il grotto di Trifonio and hence on Don Giovanni. Well, not really: any influences come from the common source of Neapolitan comic opera rather than this work, which never seems to have travelled outside Portugal until recently. The main problem with operas of this type can be the acres of recitative unaccompanied except by continuo. This is largely avoided here although the longest passages of this sort last several minutes. It is a very long opera indeed, but we are correctly given it here at full length and we can always decide for ourselves what to cut after an initial listening.
The main problem with this ‘comic opera’ is that it is not really very funny. It is not known who wrote the libretto - which is available online, in Italian only - but suspicion falls on the composer himself; Wagnerian in this as well as in length! The situations, which are explained at length in the comprehensive booklet synopsis, simply do not engage our sympathy in the way that Mozart was to do working in the same style. The arias, often in a thoroughly effective style not devoid of original touches, are good without ever rising to the level of greatness. Handel in Rinaldo approached the subject of madness by the use of irregular musical metres such as 5/4 (so, for that matter, did Wagner in Tristan) but there is nothing here that rises to the situation in any way that catches the attention. There is only one aria which displays a degree of originality: that is Volle talo per gioco (CD2, track 7) where the main body of the accompaniment is given throughout to pizzicato strings, producing a mandolin-like effect which contrasts well with the use of bows during the middle section of the da capo. Otherwise the score is efficiently written in the standard baroque manner, demonstrating a skill by the composer that is the equal of those working in more central locations such as Graun or Bononcini.
The performance itself is really very good. The period instrument band has plenty of character, and bounces along with great industry and skill under the sympathetic baton of Marcos Magalhães, who also produces some imaginative touches in his playing of the recitatives. The singers are, by and large, not baroque specialists. Oddly enough the only performer whose repertoire does not extend beyond the baroque era, Fernando Guimarães, is the least satisfactory technician although he does a good job with the pizzicato aria referred to earlier. João Fernandes, who has at one stage to impersonate a doctor - for no very obvious reason - manages with some skill to create a completely different sound for those passages. The cast is well suited to the music, and manage all the difficulties in the sometimes elaborate parts with poise, and sometimes more.
Not an essential acquisition for anyone other than those with an interest in the byways of baroque music, therefore. Still, a well performed recording in a nicely natural acoustic of a rarity of which we are unlikely to have another version at any time in the immediate future.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

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