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Pietro Antonio CESTI (1623-1669)
La Dori (1657) – Dramma musicale in three Acts to a libretto by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, Grosses Haus, Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck, Austria, 21, 24, and 26 August 2019
Director: Stefano Vizioli
Video Director: Karen Katchatryan
NTSC DVD All Regions. Dolby Digital 5.1
NAXOS 2.110676 DVD [164 mins]

Although Pietro Antonio Cesti was a cosmopolitan composer, having worked in various Italian cities, it is with the Venetian school of opera that he is most associated, as that is where he honed his skills and scored his first successes in the genre. La Dori – perhaps his best-known opera, and certainly one of his most widely disseminated and performed in the decades after its composition – comes from later on in his career when he was employed by the Habsburg court at Innsbruck, but largely remains in the Venetian mould.

The extensive instrumental forces maintained in Innsbruck, however, enabled Cesti to create more richly scored works, just as in L'Orontea (review), performed there the year before La Dori, as he was able to draw upon a greater range of instruments apart from strings and continuo to which many operas at that time, including in Venice, were limited. He also developed the operatic models of Monteverdi and Cavalli by building upon the rhetorically expressive recitative that makes up much of the fabric of their stage works, and enriching this basic format by interspersing more mellifluous melody in a generous stream of ariosos and arias. The ebullience of the vocal part in Celinda’s (Tolomeo in female disguise) aria ‘Tu parti, Arsinoe’, for instance, is almost Handelian.

Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina respond to this with a delightfully measured and dignified interpretation of this work, but also often softly sensuous, at least insofar as the music for the serious characters are concerned. Following the silvery, even ethereal, lines of the strings in the brief overture, the ensemble generally provides a poised and unforced layer of support for the singers. The dialogue between Celinda and Arsinoe in Act I is a good example – the music is allowed to unfold at a natural pace, as though the drama really is taking place before the viewer in real time, rather than pre-determined to make particular dramatic points and effects as programmed by the director. That enables the viewer to follow more easily the notoriously complex narrative in this libretto, whose backstory before the work begins could even constitute a whole opera in itself, as referred to in the review of the Blu-ray version of this disc.

The overall performance also matches well the production by Stefano Vizioli, which is set in generally crepuscular hues, on a barren landscape that resembles a desert, perhaps evoking the Mesopotamian geography surrounding Babylon where the action of the opera is supposed to occur. Offsetting that comparatively sombre backdrop are the colourful costumes of the characters, which range from the 17th century – about contemporary with the opera, or a little earlier – up to the 18th, mixing in a certain oriental element in keeping with its location. A minor gripe with the recording is that, once the lights go out at the end of the first part of the opera’s presentation in the theatre – presumably at the point where the interval came – it then proceeds without pause to the vigorous scene with banter between Dirce and Bagoa which opens the second part, immediately dispelling the preceding anguished mood of Oronte’s sufferings which any sensitive listener will surely wish to hold on to for a few moments.

A considerable part of Act I is given over to the sorrows of Dori and Oronte, as they each separately believe that, for differing reasons, it is no longer possible to recapture the love they once had for each other. Francesca Ascioti delivers that with sonorous but controlled tone, rather than histrionic or extrovert howling. Likewise Rupert Enticknap carries Oronte’s expressions of distress with subtle and soft execution, even as he descends into a melancholic madness, and his melismas are buoyed by the sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. Ascioti, incidentally, takes on a noticeably plangent, different vocal timbre when she sings briefly as the apparition of Parisatide, Oronte’s mother.
Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and Emőke Baráth bring a sparkling, radiant joy to their performances of Arsinoe and Tolomeo respectively, letting a flood of light into the music after the woebegone scenes with Dori and Oronte prior to their first appearance, as they sway with carefree abandon on swings in a garden. Baráth signs more boldly still later on in the performance, although Mazzulli swoops a little between notes as she comes under pressure. As Artaserse, the regent in the kingdom of Persia for the young Oronte, Federico Sacchi sounds suitably stern and authoritarian, whilst Bradley Smith is a reassuring musical presence as Arsete, Dori’s tutor.

Comic relief is afforded by the clutch of character types imported directly from Venetian opera. As Dirce, Alberto Allegrezza plays the customary ageing nurse in drag, in a winningly arch and more or less deadpan manner. Konstantin Derri sings the part of the eunuch Bagoa with a more explicit nasal and strenuous shrillness to characterise successfully his wily personality, and his repartee with Dirce in Act II, which opens the second part of this recording, is a witty highlight of the whole work. Rocco Cavalluzzi achieves a deliberately mannered way of delivering the part of Golo, servant and jester to the court of Oronte, without overdoing it. As the captain of Oronte’s guards, Erasto does not strictly belong with this circle of characters, but there is certainly an element of sardonic humour when he discovers that the ‘Celinda’ he has been wooing is in fact Prince Tolomeo of Egypt in woman’s guise. Nevertheless, Pietro Di Bianco sustains an even and dependable account of the role. Dantone and his ensemble underscore all these lighter episodes with a palpable degree of vitality and energy, but which keeps within well-disciplined bounds.

This performance and recording, with a fine cast throughout, together reveal a wonderful musical drama between the two highpoints in its history of Monteverdi and Handel, and so fans of opera in its pre-Classical period should not hesitate. Listeners who are not yet converted to early opera may also find something in this disc to surprise and delight them.
Curtis Rogers

Previous reviews: Mike Parr (Blu-ray) ~ Gary Higginson (CD)

Dori – Francesca Ascioti (mezzo-soprano)
Oronte – Rupert Enticknap (countertenor)
Artaserse – Federico Sacchi (bass)
Arsinoe – Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (soprano)
Tolomeo – Emőke Baráth (soprano)
Arsete – Bradley Smith (tenor)
Erasto – Pietro Di Banco (bass-baritone)
Dirce – Alberto Allegrezza (tenor)
Golo – Rocco Cavalluzzi (bass)
Bagoa – Konstantin Derri (countertenor)
Parisatide – Francesca Ascioti

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