CD Review: Francesca Aspromonte ‘Maria & Maddalena’

Two Richly Detailed Portraits Show Off Aspromonte’s Interpretative Class

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Nicola Dal Maso)

Francesca Aspromonte’s first solo album, released on the Pentatone label in 2018, explored the Italian 17thcentury opera prologue, with music from a variety of composers including Cavalli, Stradella, and A. Scarlatti. Accompanied by the Il Pomo D’Oro ensemble under the direction of Enrico Onofri, the recording proved itself to be an excellent showcase for the young soprano, whose presentation of the pieces confirmed her prodigious understanding and execution of the stylistic forms of the 17th century baroque.

Now she has released her second solo project, again on the Pentatone label, entitled “Maria & Maddalena,” with the I Barocchisti ensemble under the direction of Diego Fasolis. And it is a very different listening experience, not least owing to the change in Aspromonte’s voice which has lost some of its youthful freshness, but has been amply compensated for with a richer, fuller sound.

The new recording is again a collection of arias, but on this occasion, she has shifted her attention from the 17th to the early 18th century, and away from secular music of the opera to the sacred music of the oratorio. The recording sets out to explore the similarities of the two women from 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 referred to as a repentant prostitute, and the other a paragon of virtue, yet both chose a pathway dedicated to serving Christ, for which they both suffered.

In total, the album comprises 16 tracks, of which three are instrumental and 14 are arias, seven of which are preceded by a passage of recitative. Seven are devoted to the Virgin and seven to Magdalena. The selected compositions range from the well-known, with arias from Handel, Scarlatti, and Caldara, to the lesser-known, with pieces from Perti, Lulier, and Bononcini, to the surprising, with an aria composed by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I von Habsburg.

The Virgin

The opening track “Di quel lampi che vanta l’aurora” comes from Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier’s oratorio “Per la Nascità del Redentore” premiered in 1700, which finds Mary exulting in the birth of Jesus and calls upon the angels to join her. Accompanied by energetic violins, Aspromonte captures the Virgin’s pride in her firmly articulated and clearly defined lines, in which her joy can be heard in her short emotional coloraturas. So begins a journey that ends in his crucifixion and resurrection, one characterized by the suffering of living with the knowledge that her son is destined for an early death.

Two arias separated by recitative, taken from Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio “La Santissima Annunziata,” bring the Virgin’s  journey, and the disk, to an end. In the first “Stesa a pie’ del tronco amaro” the Virgin laments the death of her son, with Aspromonte’s poignant intonation and long vowel sounds beautifully capturing the Virgin’s pain. In the second aria “Nella patria dei contenti” we hear a more buoyant Virgin, as she looks forward to a future in which she will provide a refuge for mankind. Against the racing rhythmic accompaniment of the orchestra, Aspromonte’s sings with a noticeable sense of freedom, her voice taking on an almost joyful sheen, in which her coloraturas appear fresh and easy.

The Virgin’s journey also takes in two arias from Giacomo Antonio Perti’s oratorio “La Sepoltura di Cristo,” in which the aria “Del campo il bel fiore” captures the attention with its pleasing melody which Aspromonte brings alive with her agile phrasing, light coloratura, and nicely accented lines.

There is a further aria by Lulier, “Tu dormi o Figlio…Figlio mio, se nel pensiero” which is preceded by a passage of recitative, notable for the expressive depth Aspromonte is able to bring to her presentation. The aria is a lullaby, which she sings with a pleasing, gentle lilt, but which is also tainted by the knowledge of her son’s forthcoming crucifixion, reflected in its disrupted rhythm.

Also included is the surprise aria “Ecco qui l’incomprensibile” composed by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I von Habsburg taken from Antonio Draghi’s oratorio “Il Crocefisso per Grazia.” Written in 1691, it is the only piece from the 17th century, and typically for time is composed in strophic form, with verses separated by an instrumental refrain.

Mary Magdalena

The arias dedicated to Mary Magdalene take the listener on a more clearly defined journey, relating episodes of her relationship to Jesus in clear chronological order. The first aria “Sinché ridon le rose” is one of three taken from Giovanni Lorenzo Bononcini’s oratorio “La conversione di Maddalena.” As she contemplates her decision to follow Jesus, she reflects without guilt on the joys of her youth, which Aspromonte adorns with a series of light coloraturas, embellishments, and colorful inflections, in a confident, refined rendition that never descends into overstatement.

The second of Bononcini’s arias “Cor imbelle a due nemici” is a particularly delightful piece in which her voice and Boris Begelman’s solo violin compete, reflecting Magdalene’s inner struggle on her path towards conversion. Again, Aspromonte’s vocal agility is on display with extended passages of coloratura and subtly embellished lines.

“La Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo” by Antonio Caldara from 1713 provides two arias, both preceded by a passage of recitative. The first of which “Pompe inutili” finds Magdalena in a state of repentance. Aspromonte gives voice to Magdalena’s determination to remain faithful with a well-paced, exquisitely phrased, calmly reflective A section, which she then underlines in the short B section with an emphatic, yet controlled, emotional outburst. This is followed later in the disk by the second aria “In lagrime stemprato.”

Her journey is brought to an end with two arias taken from Handel’s “La Resurrezione” in which Aspromonte’s musicality and vocal versatility are given center stage. In the aria “Ho un non so che nel cor,” the ensemble provides only a minimal accompaniment, leaving her voice to carry not just the melody, but also the full emotional content of the piece. The second aria “Se impassibile, immortale” also puts the full weight of the interpretation onto the singer. Aspromonte is more than up to the task of bringing the arias alive, producing two detailed, refined and elegant renditions, which uncover the full emotional content of the pieces.

I Barocchisti

The inclusion of three instrumental pieces, taken from the oratorios by Caldara, Bononcini, and Handel, provides a pleasing contrast and balance to the arias. The sinfonia from “La Maddalena ai pied idi Cristo” is a lively, rhythmically gripping piece with strong forward momentum, for which I Barocchisti produce a clean, crisp sound, whilst Handel’s overture from “La Resurrezione” is given an elegant, almost regal rendition in which the textural quality of trumpets and wind are beautifully balanced alongside the strings. Bononcini’s sinfonia from the “La conversione di Maddelena” is a much darker piece which, in its opening bars, is suggestive of the crucifixion and Magdalena’s anguish, which then transforms into a reflective passage, and which I Barocchisti render with suitable sensitivity.

Fasolis elicits a clean, rhythmically taught sound from the ensemble, sensitively supporting Aspromonte on all the tracks, in which individual performances are gracefully allowed to emerge, such as the cello in “Pompe inutile.” Along with Begelman’s solo violin, they add a further degree of virtuosity and color to what is a beautiful and effective presentation.

Overall, the album provides further evidence of Aspromonte’s impressive talent, in which her ability to deliver convincing interpretations, richly endowed with subtle and emotional detail has allowed her to open up fresh vistas successfully, in this case with two fascinating portraits of women who suffered for Christ.

Although not a recording that gives up all its treasures on the first listening, it will certainly repay the patient listener many times over.


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