Prologue CD Review: Francesca Aspromonte’s Vocal Beauty Is Glorious In Experimental Baroque Album

By Alan Neilson

The Italian soprano Francesca Aspromonte has already attracted significant attention, within the field of Early Music, for her stunning performances on the opera stage and in the concert hall. With the release, earlier this month, of her first solo CD entitled “Prologue,” she takes the next step in cementing her already blossoming reputation.

From opera’s very beginnings, and lasting around 100 years, composers prefaced their works with a prologue, which was sung by an allegorical figure. It was occasionally used to introduce the opera and its themes, but more likely it would simply be a vote of thanks to a duke or a patron, or even unconnected musings on a subject which had no dramatic connection to the opera itself. It is, also, a form that has been relatively neglected. In this recital, however, Aspromonte has decided to rectify the situation, by taking us on an imaginative exploration of these curious introductions, beginning with Monteverdi’s prologue to his well-known “L’Orfeo” from 1607 and, concluding at the end of the 17th century, with Scarlatti’s prologue to “Gli equivocal in amore, o vero La Rosaura,” from 1690. She is accompanied on her journey, which takes in known and lesser-known prologues from works by Caccini, Cavalli, Landi, Rossi, Cesti and Stradella, by the Il pomo d’oro ensemble under the direction of Enrico Onofri.

A Unique Structural Experiment

It is also very much a personal excursion, with Aspromonte not only researching and selecting the pieces to be included, but also helping define the underlying structure of the recital. The disc is introduced by the toccata from “L’Orfeo” followed by its prologue from “La Musica,” giving the appearance that an opera is about to commence, an impression that is maintained by the retention of the introductory sinfonia from the prologues, as well as the insertion of a standalone sinfonia by Stradella. The idea being to create the impression that the listener is hearing a complete opera, rather than a series of unconnected tracks. It is debatable whether or not such an effect has been achieved, but it has the positive side-effect of giving the recording a more organic feel, by breaking up the usual consistent pattern one finds on recital discs, as well as opening up space, which sharpens the impact of Aspromonte’s finely detailed singing. As a further attempt to create the impression that this a complete opera, the endings of the prologues have been cropped, sometimes brutally so, so that one track appears to form part of the next. Unfortunately, however, this does not always work.

A Pleasure To Listen To

Overall, however, this is a disc that delights on so many levels. It not only brings together examples of a musico-dramatic form that has been largely ignored, but also acts as wonderful showcase for Francesca Aspromonte and her prodigious talent, and is accompanied by the splendid playing of Il pomo d’oro. As one listens, it is difficult not to be impressed by the qualities of her voice, her solid technique and the sheer musicality and intelligence which she brings to each piece.

From the first track, singing the allegorical figure of La Musica from “L’Orfeo,” certain qualities are clearly in evidence; her detailed approach, the clarity of the words and the subtlety with which she phrases and embellishes the vocal line. Yet it is the rich textures of her pallette that most impress. Her luscious soprano is supported by a warm undertone, which she employs with versatility and intelligence, and creates alluring and enchanting portrayals of these allegorical interlopers.

On every track, there is so much to admire. In Cavalli’s prologue from “L’Eritrea,” for example, Aspromonte’s gentle and soft coloratura beautifully mimics the breezes, which Iris implores to return during a violent storm. Meanwhile, in the first section of Stradella’s “La Pace incatenata,” she characterizes the suffering of the imprisoned Peace with long yearning lines, inflected with subtle embellishments and fine shadings.

In Cavalli’s “L’Ormido” in which she depicts Harmony, she sings with only a very light orchestral accompaniment, which clearly displays the unadorned beauty of her voice, including a delightfully articulated cadenza, with a substantial amount of agility. Of particular delight was Landi’s “Il Sant’Alessio,” the disc’s only prologue to be taken from an oratorio, rather than opera. Portraying the figure of Rome, and following an extended sinfonia, Aspromonte spins out delicately constructed phrases replete with dynamic shadings and an array of imaginative embellishments, underpinned by a variety of rich textures. She again finishes off the piece with a pleasing cadenza.

In Rossi’s “Il palazzo incantato, ovvero La guerriera amante,” in which Painting holds a dialogue with a Chorus of Streams, her voice bobs and weaves, intertwining itself with the orchestra to marvelous effect. You could swear that it is possible to hear the streams bubbling in her voice.

Refined Accompaniment

Onofri and the Il pomo d’oro ensemble also play their part in making this such a welcome recording. The ensemble’s role is not really that of a subordinate, although the focus is certainly on Aspromonte, for there are many sections in which they are required to play sinfonias of varying lengths. Onofri manages to generate a variety of texture and maintains a taught rhythmic dynamic which at times propels the music forward and at times remains hidden in the background, allowing Aspromonte to hold sway.

Unfortunately, prologues are often forgotten. Afterall, their connection with the operas that follow often have little relevance or connection. In this recording, however, they take centerstage, and thanks to the exquisite vocal beauty of Francesca Aspromonte, backed by the delightful and refined playing of Il pomo d’oro, they reveal themselves to be forgotten little gems, mini-dramas in their own right, full of refined, charming, and graceful music.

In total there are 12 tracks consisting of 11 prologues, six with accompanying sinfonias as well as “L’Orfeo’s” prologue accompanied by a toccata, and one track featuring a sinfonia by Stradella. This was an undertaking in which the enthusiasm and passion of the artists are palpable. It is a disc that is exploratory, revelatory and, most importantly, beautiful to listen to.


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