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Francesca Aspromonte: Prologue 

CD Button Works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Caccini, Rossi, Cesti, Landi, Stradella, Scarlatti. Il Pomo d’Oro, Onofri. Texts and translations. Pentatone PTC 5186646

Recordings Aspromonte Cover 1018

Critics Choice Button 1015

SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY Italian operas begin with a ritual. The personification of Tragedy or Painting or Harmony ceremoniously addresses the audience, making references to various gods or mythological geographical locations. A goddess herself may speak, presenting the backstory of the evening’s entertainment. Rome, Venice or some legendary place may be invoked, or may even appear and sing. The opera’s plot may be revealed or hinted at, and special guests or specific occasions are often referenced. The Italian ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and soprano Francesca Aspromonte have stitched together eleven such prologues into a marvelous, richly dramatic sequence that introduces operas both private and public, one-offs for special occasions as well as long-running hits, and even one sacred drama.

Lest anyone think the music is all G-major chords and goat-trills, the selections—arranged roughly in chronological order, from Monteverdi to Alessandro Scarlatti—reveal a growing sophistication and harmonic complexity, along with increasing vocal demands, all developing from a style of lyrical improvisation that did in fact use standard chord formulas. The instrumental contributions, whether short, repeating refrains or more independent compositions, are superbly realized by the string ensemble, led by violinist Enrico Onofri. Throughout the disc, soprano and instrumentalists play off one other with stylish decorations and sophisticated musical understanding. 

The disc opens with the well-known toccata from Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo, with its flashy flourishes and improvisations setting up the entrance of Music herself, whose formal strophes are separated by a repeated instrumental sinfonia. Aspromonte enters into the delivery of text with such verve and vocal color that it’s impossible to think of these scenes as throwaway curtain-raisers. Her voice is pungent, with rolled rs that lend spice and punch to the text, and her musical imagination is very active, bringing variety to even the most representational characters and situations. 

The goddess Iris appears twice, first with a stirring recap of the Trojan War in Cavalli’s Didone (“Caduta è Troia”), then in gentler guise in the same composer’s Eritrea, in which Aspromonte glides and shapes the running melodies with grace as well as force. The artists deftly avoid locking into rhythmic patterns but always control the pace with subtle ease and rubato, particularly in Stradella’s lengthy, sectional prologue to La Pace Incatenata or the lilting patterns of the first aria in Cesti’s Pomo d’Oro, sung by the Glory of Austria. Even in less strongly metered pieces, such as Harmony’s richly expressive speech that opens Cavalli’s Ormindo, the soprano exhibits a masterful way of teasing the rhythms in response to the text.

Early Italian prologues often mention, like trigger warnings, the powerful emotions that may be elicited in the listener. If delight counts, Aspromonte, Onofi and Il Pomo d’Oro have hit the mark.  —Judith Malafronte 



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