A454 Stradella: La Doriclea
Fanfare Barry Brenesal 5/28/2019
  We would probably know a great deal about Stradella’s La Doriclea if it had been birthed in Venice. The Serene Republic of the 17th century was frankly opera-mad, with a series of luxurious opera houses that began appearing in the 1630s, and competed fiercely with one another the way another age would its television networks: the Teatro Tron, Teatro San Cassiano, Teatro San Moisè, Teatro Novissimo, Teatro di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Teatro di San Salvatore a San Luca, Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, Teatro San Samuele, and others. In all, there were 11 opera houses active in the city towards the end of the 17th century, bidding for the public’s scudi with new and newly revised operas.
            But La Doriclea was destined instead for Rome, where the papacy swung between artistic indulgence (which museums worldwide are forever indebted to) and reformist bans. During instances of the latter opera houses were sometimes closed for lengthy periods, but as in numerous other well-intentioned prohibitions, it merely turned the perceived problem into a flourishing private reserve for those sufficiently well enough off to afford it. Numerous Roman princes of the church sponsored opera performances in their luxurious palaces and gardens; and it is believed that La Doriclea probably debuted in one of these residences belonging to the powerful Orsini family, during the early 1670s.
            The likely connection between Stradella and the Orsinis was Giovanni Battista Vulpio, a well-regarded castrato in the Papal Choir, and close friend of both several Orsinis and the composer. Vulpio was also something of a scoundrel, which appealed to Stradella’s situational ethics; and some of their felonious activities would not have been unworthy of Jack Falstaff. At one point, for instance, the two attempted to cheat a rich, elderly woman of 5,000 gold ducats, a sum that was to supposedly help arrange her marriage to a relative of Cardinal Alderano Cybo, Pope Innocent XI’s Secretary of State. The plot was uncovered, and did not go over well with the Papal authorities. Stradella fled to Venice early in 1677, then Genoa later that year.
            It was upon departing Rome hastily that the composer left Vulpio with over 50 manuscripts of his music. We find La Doriclea mentioned for the first time in an inventory made in 1705, following the singer’s death. The opera then vanished from view, only to reappear in 1938 in the Bishopric of Rieti—and once again went missing for several decades before turning up in private hands. Given the complete lack of information about its commission and premiere, it’s just possible that the work was the first opera Stradella composed entirely on his own, as opposed to contributed to. (New operas were in such demand at the time that it wasn’t unusual for Italian opera house managers to commission or resuscitate sections of works from different composers—who might in turn reuse older material of theirs suitable for a series of specific expressive situations, while displaying the best features of a currently celebrated artist. Singers as well would take their favorite arias with them for later insertion in operas as they traveled.) I’ve seen it listed occasionally as Stradella’s last opera, from 1681, but that assumes a post-Rome date of creation that meshes poorly with its subsequent appearance in Vulpio’s inventory.
            Not surprisingly, given the presumed circumstances of its private debut, La Doriclea has relatively few characters, and no scenes that depend upon opulent sets or intricate effects. Its plot follows the older Venetian standard based on a three-act format with romantic couples of the upper and middle classes, a pair of lower-class servants (who are also lovers, here), jealousies, hidden identities, mistaken assumptions, and eventual happiness for all. Cavalli was the acknowledged master of these operas that combined love, cynicism, and a melancholy awareness of life’s evanescence. Stradella belongs to the same school. His characters inhabit each of their emotions fully, without reservation. The aria forms are simple: either a single repeated thematic section, or occasionally, two contrasting strains. Stradella is thoroughly effective in his expressive designs, writing long-limbed melodies that would not be out of place in Artemisia, L’Ormindo, and Giasone.
            The absence of woodwinds or brass on this recording break with later Venetian tradition, and the more prideful, almost martial arias (such as Lucinda’s “Da un bel ciglo”) must make due without the expected pair of trumpets—though in fairness we really can’t tell how many musicians Stradella’s unknown patron hired, or what exactly they played. Conductor Andrea De Carlo sensibly keeps his instrumental forces relatively small, with Il Pomo d’Oro reduced to nine musicians, including two violins that usually perform the thematic lead-in.
            His six vocalists in turn are excellent, with minor reservations. Giuseppina Bridelli, for example, who does a superior job in the aforementioned “Da un bel ciglo” with its florid writing and fast tempo, manages less well in the reflective “Spera mio core,” where the tempo is slower but some of her figures are sketchy at best. In general, her upper range is more attractive and less breathy. Baritone Riccardo Novaro, whom I praised in Handel’s Floridante (Archiv 477 6566) for his “rich, flexible bass” and “smooth production” is much the same here, though the role might have been better suited to a bass-baritone; and he has trouble producing the lower notes. (His dark sound and fast vibrato, however, occasionally recall Ezio Pinza.)
            In the part of the servant girl, Gabriella Martellacci almost seems at times to venture lower than Novaro, so low-lying is her part. She brings a wonderful chest voice and considerable agility to Delfina (“Quanto gracchiar si sente”), though as in Cesti’s Le disgrazie d’Amore, she doesn’t vary her rich tone sufficiently. Entrusting the passionate Fidalbo to Xavier Sabata was a smart choice. His elaborate two-part aria, “Chi sa dove dimon la beltà,” is sung with very forward enunciation and suitably varied tone. The aristocratic lover, Celindo, he of sighs and melancholy, is in the capable hands of Luca Cervoni. The tenor wasn’t up to handling the figurations in Stradella’s Santa Pelagia (Arcana 431), but here, in a role that requires beauty of tone, phrasing, and breath control, he is heard to fine advantage. Finally, Emőke Baráth offers the same creamy soprano voice and immaculate phrasing that she did in Alan Curtis’s recording of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, but with more welcome thought given to details of character both in recitative and aria (“Menzognero fu chi disse”).
            De Carlo leads with a sure hand and attention to nuance. Just occasionally, I could wish he would take some of the arias laden with heavier emotion at a slower tempo, especially in the third act. Fidalbo’s “Sospira, cor mio” furnishes an example. It moves too rapidly to register much of an impression, though I’d suggest it should provide a counterweight to the quicksilver cynicism of Delfina that precedes it, and Giraldo, which follows.
            That said, there’s clearly a strong, capable conductor at the helm of this work, and the result is a success by every standard. La Doriclea has languished with few performances since its recovery, but a recording such as this should draw enough attention to warrant future performances, and soon. Strongly recommended. © 2019 Fanfare