(Photo: Nicola Dal Maso)
Francesca Aspromonte’s first solo album, released on the Pentatone label in 2018, explored the Italian 17andopera prologue of the century, with music by various composers, including Cavalli, Stradella and A. Scarlatti. Accompanied by the Il Pomo D’Oro ensemble under the direction of Enrico Onofri, the recording proves to be an excellent showcase for the young soprano, whose presentation of the pieces confirms her prodigious understanding and execution of the stylistic forms of the 17and baroque of the century.
She has just released her second solo project, still on the Pentatone label, entitled “Maria & Maddalena”, with the I Barocchisti ensemble under the direction of Diego Fasolis. And it’s a very different listening experience, not least because of the change in Aspromonte’s voice which has lost some of its youthful freshness, but has been more than compensated for by a richer, fuller sound.
The new recording is again a collection of arias, but this time she has diverted her attention from the 17and at the beginning of the 18and century, and far from the secular music of the opera to the sacred music of the oratorio. The recording sets out to explore the similarities between the two women in the Gospels who have attracted the most attention, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin. Two very different characters, one born into a life of wealth and beauty and sometimes called a repentant prostitute, and the other a paragon of virtue, but both have chosen a path dedicated to the service of Christ, for which they have both suffered.
In total, the album has 16 tracks, including three instrumentals and 13 arias, seven of which are preceded by a recitative passage. Six are dedicated to the Virgin and seven to the Magdalen. The compositions selected range from the best known, with arias by Handel, Scarlatti and Caldara, to the lesser known, with pieces by Perti, Lulier and Bononcini, to the surprising, with an aria composed by Holy Roman Emperor Leopold Je von Habsburg.
The opening piece “Di quel lampi che vanta l’aurora” comes from the oratorio “Per la Nascità del Redentore” by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier premiered in 1700, which finds Mary exulting at the birth of Jesus and calls the angels to the to rejoin. Accompanied by energetic violins, Aspromonte captures the pride of the Virgin in her firmly articulated and clearly defined lines, in which her joy can be heard in her short emotional coloraturas. Thus begins a journey that ends with his crucifixion and resurrection, characterized by the pain of living knowing that his son is destined for an untimely death.
Two arias separated by a recitative, taken from the oratorio “La Santissima Annunziata” by Alessandro Scarlatti, close the journey of the Virgin and the disc. In the first ‘Stessa a pie’ del trunco amaro’, the Virgin laments the death of her son, with Aspromonte’s poignant intonation and long vowels beautifully capturing the Virgin’s grief. In the second aria “Nella patria dei contenti” we hear a more dynamic Virgin, as she looks forward to a future in which she will offer refuge to humanity. Against the thrilling rhythmic accompaniment of the orchestra, Aspromonte sings with a noticeable sense of freedom, his voice taking on an almost joyful sheen, in which his coloraturas appear fresh and easy.
The journey of the Virgin also includes two arias from the oratorio “La Sepoltura di Cristo” by Giacomo Antonio Perti, in which the aria “Del campo il bel fiore” captures the attention with its pleasant melody that Aspromonte brings to life with its nimble phrasing, light coloratura, and beautifully accented lines.
There is another aria by Lulier, “Tu dormi o Figlio…Figlio mio, se nel pensiero” which is preceded by a recitative passage, notable for the expressive depth that Aspromonte is able to bring to its presentation. The tune is a lullaby, which she sings with a pleasant, gentle cadence, but which is also tainted by the knowledge of her son’s upcoming crucifixion, reflected in its disturbed rhythm.
Also included is the surprise aria “Ecco qui l’incomrensibile” composed by Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Habsburg from the oratorio “Il Crocefisso per Grazia” by Antonio Draghi. Written in 1691, it is the only piece of the 17and century, and typically for the time is composed in strophic form, with lines separated by an instrumental refrain.
The tunes dedicated to Mary Magdalene take the listener on a more clearly defined journey, recounting episodes of her relationship with Jesus in a clear chronological order. The first aria “Sinché ridon rose” is one of three excerpts from the oratorio “La conversione di Maddalena” by Giovanni Lorenzo Bononcini. As she contemplates her decision to follow Jesus, she reflects guiltlessly on the joys of her youth, which Aspromonte adorns with a series of light coloraturas, embellishments and colorful inflections, in a confident and refined interpretation that does not never descends into exaggeration.
The second of Bonincini’s arias ‘Cor imbelle a due nemici’ is a particularly delightful piece in which her voice and Boris Begelman’s solo violin compete, reflecting Madeleine’s inner struggle on her path to conversion. Again, Aspromonte’s vocal agility is on display with long passages of coloratura and subtly embellished lines.
Antonio Caldara’s 1713 “La Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo” features two arias, both preceded by a recitative passage. The first of which “Pump inutili” finds Magdalena in a state of repentance. Aspromonte expresses Magdalena’s determination to stay true with a well-paced, delightfully phrased and calmly thoughtful A-section, which she then underscores in the short B-section with an emphatic, yet controlled, emotional outburst. This is followed later in the disc by the second tune “In lagrime stemprato”.
His journey ends with two arias from Handel’s “La Resurrezione” in which Aspromonte’s musicality and vocal versatility take center stage. In the aria ‘Ho un non so che nel cor’, the ensemble provides only minimal accompaniment, letting its voice carry not only the melody, but all the emotional content of the piece. The second tune “Se impassibile, immortale” also places all the weight of the interpretation on the singer. Aspromonte is more than up to the task of bringing the tunes to life, producing two detailed, refined and elegant renditions that reveal the full emotional content of the pieces.
The inclusion of three instrumental pieces, taken from the oratorios of Caldara, Bononcini and Handel, provide pleasing contrast and balance to the arias. The sinfonia of “La Maddalena ai pied idi Cristo” is a lively, rhythmically captivating piece with a strong forward momentum, for which I Barocchisti produces a clear and crisp sound, while Handel’s overture to “La Resurrezione” receives an elegant, almost royal interpretation. in which the textural quality of the trumpets and wind are beautifully balanced alongside the strings. Bononcini’s sinfonia of “La conversione di Maddelena” is a much darker piece which, in its opening bars, evokes the crucifixion and anguish of Magdalena, which then turns into a reflective passage, and which I Barocchisti renders with appropriate sensitivity.
Fasolis elicits a clean, rhythmically taught sound from the ensemble, sensitively supporting Aspromonte on all tracks, in which individual performances are gracefully allowed to emerge, such as the cello in “Useless Pump”. With Begelman’s solo violin they add an extra degree of virtuosity and color to what is a beautiful and effective presentation.
Taken as a whole, the album provides further evidence of Aspromonte’s impressive talent, in which his ability to deliver compelling interpretations, richly endowed with subtle and emotional detail, enabled him to successfully break new ground, the occurrence with two fascinating portraits of women who suffered during Christ.
Although this is not a recording that delivers all of its treasures on first listen, it will certainly reward the patient listener many times over.