Alessandro Stradella was one of the most famous composers of
his time. When he was stabbed to death in 1682 it was said that
"an Orfeo was murdered". The largest part of his oeuvre consists
of secular cantatas. He also composed a number of works for
the stage. He is known to have composed at least seven oratorios;
the first, on a Latin text, has been lost. The other six belong
to the genre of the oratorio volgare, the oratorio in
the vernacular. The best-known and most frequently performed
in our time is San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist).
Stradella was born in Rome and at an early age must have become
acquainted with the oratorio genre. Such works were frequently
performed in Rome, and found their origin in the Congregazione
dell'Oratorio, which was founded in the 16th century by Filippo
Neri. Originally they were set to Latin texts, for instance
by Giacomo Carissimi, who was the most prolific composer of
oratorios in the mid-17th century. Those in the vernacular were
meant to bring the moral content closer to the people. The church
considered this genre an important vehicle to spread the ideals
of the Counter-Reformation.
La Susanna was commissioned by Duke Francesco II d'Este
for performance in Modena, where this genre was very popular
in the last quarter of the 17th century. The Duke's secretary,
Giovanni Battista Giardini, who was also active as a poet, wrote
the libretto which was set to music by Stradella with considerable
speed. The libretto is based on the 13th chapter of the book
of the prophet Daniel. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox
Churches placed this chapter with the deuterocanonical
parts of the Bible; what Martin Luther referred to as the Apocrypha.
The story is set in Babylon, in the time the Jews were living
there in captivity. Two elderly men, called 'judges' in the
libretto, fall in love with Susanna, a virtuous woman, married
to Joakim. When they see her bathing in her garden, they try
to seduce her, but she rejects them. They then accuse her of
adultery. She is sentenced to death, but then the prophet Daniel
intervenes. He asks the judges where the act of adultery had
taken place. As their answers don't match, they are sentenced
to death themselves and Susanna is set free.
As usual the oratorio is divided into two parts. It begins with
a sinfonia in four short movements. The instrumental scoring
is for two violins and bc, and is played here with one instrument
per part. The story is told by the Testo in the form
of recitatives, although he has a couple of arias as well. The
recitatives reflect the ideal of recitar cantando, speech-like
singing. Sometimes a recitative turns into a short arioso toward
the end. The arias are rather short; Stradella seldom makes
use of the dacapo form. The longest aria is also the most technically
demanding: Susanna's lamento 'Da chi spero aita, o Cieli' -
"From whom do I hope for help, o Heavens, if cruel are those
who love me?" (part II). In addition to the arias there are
some duets and choruses for three voices. In the last stage
of the second part the two judges and Susanna sing a terzetto
with an ingenious text in which the feelings of the two 'parties'
mirror each other: "Unhappy we - Happy me", "No, no, my heart
may no longer hope for comfort - Yes, yes, my heart may hope
for comfort", "Who departs from God must face ruin - Who embraces
God will reach a safe harbour". An oratorio always had a moral.
The first part ends at the moment that Susanna is imprisoned,
and a five-part chorus states: "Impure love was ever lethal.
But when the murderous flame finds a nest in the old man's breast,
it is a poison and a plague to the heart". The oratorio ends
with another chorus for five voices: "Whoever against innocence
shoots arrows of evil intent, must expect the thunderbolts of
This is a the recording of a live performance, but that is hardly
noticeable until the applause at the end. Had it been a studio
recording I would have wished that some passages had been done
again, because there are some insecurities. Gemma Bertagnolli
gives a very good account of her role, but the aria 'Da chi
sperio aita, o Cieli' has some very high notes which are not
perfect. The other soloists are also good, but I would have
liked Martin Oro to have performed the part of the Testo
in a more declamatory manner. This recording has to compete
with the one which was released in 2004 by Glossa, directed
by Enrico Gatti. The cast is very strong, with Emanuela Galli
singing the part of Susanna brilliantly; she is clearly superior
to Gemma Bertagnolli. Roberto Balconi also surpasses Martin
Oro as Testo. On the whole Gatti's performance is more
expressive and more dramatic. If still available the recording
of 1979 under the direction of Alan Curtis is still worthwhile.
His soloists - Marjanne Kweksilber, Judith Nelson, René
Jacobs, Martyn Hill and Ulrik Cold - were top of the bill in
early music at the time.
Even so, this is a very respectable and enjoyable recording.
At budget price, you can hardly go wrong with this disc.
Johan van Veen