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Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736)
La Salustia - Dramma per musica in three acts (1731)
Vittorio Prato, Marziano: Serena Malfi, Salustia: Laura Polverelli, Giulia: Florin Cezar Ouatu, Alessandro: Giacinta Nicotra, Albina: Maria Hinojosa Montenegro, Claudio
Accademia Barocca de I Virtuosi Italiani/Corrado Rovaris
rec. Theatro Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Jesi, Italy, 2011
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master, Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9: 1080i
Region: Worldwide
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Korean
Reviewed in surround sound.

This disc entirely avoids problems with menus by not having any. It just plays in stereo and without subtitles. I had to use the audio and subtitle controls on my player remote to get surround and English subtitles. Once you know this it is easy enough. What is less easy is having to refer to the booklet to get track numbers if you, like me, tend to watch operas by the act and have to get back to, say, the start of Act 3 after a break of a day or two. Blu-ray players do sometimes hold this information and provide auto re-accessing at the point one stops. Overall I think I prefer this to the use of music over complicated menu systems. The sound and pictures here are absolutely excellent with a real sense of presence, save perhaps for a rather over emphatic harpsichord continuo which though nice to hear, is unrealistically loud. The liner-notes are scholarly and valuable but could usefully have been longer considering they deal with such a rarely performed composer.
So to the performance. The singing and playing of La Salustia are both expert and enthusiastic. There were moments in the first act where I questioned the acting, but given the massive artificiality of this work even by operatic standards it is perhaps unfair to expect any form of 'verismo'. As my notes say, what can you do with such an unlikely tale? The opera would have been written as a vehicle for vocal display in which it succeeds admirably. There are a lot of high voices with only Marziano as a tenor role, the rest as soprano and mezzo voices including the other male lead, that of the Roman Emperor Alessandro Severo. Costuming appears to be approximately as Pergolesi would have expected - the fashion of his own day - and the staging is against one unchanging set in which costumes and lighting provide the necessary variety. There is directorial input in the staging with a considerable amount of writing on walls as well as changing in and out of costumes onstage as if to frame the main action. This doesn't distract but it is somewhat mystifying to watch.
Pergolesi died very young even by composer standards. He makes Schubert and Mozart seem like old men, dying of TB at the age of just 26. The present work was his first opera seria written when he was just 21 and he managed to write another three opera seria plus a small handful of comic intermezzi before his death just five years later. Queen Maria Amalia of Naples described him in 1738 as 'a great man' and insisted on performances of his music continuing after his tragically early death. The most well known of his operatic works is La Serva Padrona and possibly his best known composition a setting of the Stabat Mater. In the 1960s and 1970s works by Pergolesi were nearly always simply 'attributed' to him and many orchestral and instrumental pieces have since been reassigned to other composers. It is a curious sidelight on Pergolesi's reputation that Stravinsky believed he had based his Ballet for voices and small orchestra, Pulcinella on fragments of works by Pergolesi extracted from the archives by Diaghilev. As it turns out this was not the case, the music was mostly by Gallo, Wassenaer and others, but by the time this was discovered, the name of Pergolesi was written back into musical consciousness. A visit to the website of the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini whose festival was responsible for the present performance of La Salustia shows how musicologists have now reliably sorted this situation.
You have to enjoy the continuous declamatory style of Italian baroque opera to enjoy this piece. The story is progressed by a sort of all-purpose recitative punctuated by mostly dramatic but occasionally soulful arias about the distressing situations experienced by the characters. There are some ensemble pieces but by far the greatest number of arias are solos. Tu m'insulti sung by La Salustia herself in Act 2 is a good example of the sort of fiery and virtuoso singing we get throughout. There is nowhere near as much lyrical music as in Vivaldi's operas of this period, and truth to tell, not so much variety either. Interestingly, even the climactic points in the action are delivered in the same long recitatives as the rest of proceedings, when slightly later composers would have gone for arias or choruses. Pergolesi's work is good listening for all that and made so by some brilliant singing, for example from Giacinta Nicotra as Albina. She demonstrates clearly that the curiously exaggerated aspiration displayed by Cecilia Bartoli in her groundbreaking - in terms of popularity - recordings of this sort of repertoire, is not necessary. Nicotra manages all the complex runs and tight phrasing without resorting to Bartoli's breathy coloratura. Given how much of this long work requires that sort of delivery it is as well these soloists are so skilled.
This work stands as an enjoyable example of Pergolesi's art and of both stylish and virtuoso singing. It is presented in a sufficiently lively way to hold the attention through its three hours plus running time.

Dave Billinge