Giovanni Battista Bassani
La morte delusa
Emanuela Galli: Pietà, Daniela del Monaco: Morte, Philippe Jaroussky: Gloria, François Piolino: Giustizia, Jean-Claude Sarragosse: Lucifero
Ensemble La Fenice
Jean Tubéry, cornett and conduction
La morte delusa (“Death confounded”) does not seem a captivating title as it conveys the idea of a gloomy, sombre oratorio filled with funereal and sorrowful music, hardly endurable to the end, and knowing that it was written by Giovanni Battista Bassani (c.1650-1716), a composer that was associated from his youth to the Accademia della Morte, Ferrara, seems to confirm the first impression rather than to dissipate it. It is therefore better to specify from the beginning that this does not correspond to reality and maybe you will be more inclined to believe me if I add that the complete title of the oratorio is actually La morte delusa dal pietoso suffragio (“Death confounded by piteous suffrage”) and that it was not written to commemorate a tragic event, but a victory, the famous victory of Christendom over the Turks in 1683.
Bassani wrote thirteen oratorios, but only La morte delusa and three others survive to our days. In the present case, the surviving music offers an “archeological” surprise, as it makes extensive use of the cornett, an ancient instrument that enjoyed great favour in the 15th and 16th centuries as it was considered the instrument that more closely imitated the human voice (it is therefore not by chance that the major part of the music written for it is vocal). At the end of the 17th century, the cornett was already out of fashion with the exception of town musician, among whom it remained popular until the 18th and occasionally the 19th century. Bassani’s La morte delusa is probably one of the last works in which the cornett has such an important solo part, as it not only stands out in the most significant passages, but it is the unifier of the entire oratorio. It is therefore not by chance that the present recording features an accomplished cornett virtuoso as Jean Tubéry.
If the oratorio has a weakness, this must be sought in the libretto and not in its music, as the text presents (once more) the contrast between good and evil allegories and characters. This time it is the turn of Pietà (Piety), Gloria (Glory) and Giustizia (Justice) to deal with and to defeat Morte (Death) and Lucifero (Lucifer) thanks to stereotyped expressions, but fortunately these roles are entrusted to first rate singers that, without being misled by the text, try to give them a “colour”, if concrete personality is not possible. It is ironic that this is usually easier to achieve with the evil characters rather than the good ones and La morte delusa is no exception, being Daniela del Monaco as the title role and Jean-Claude Sarragosse as Lucifer that have more chances to personalize their roles.
La morte delusa does not have many gloomy moments, but Del Monaco has done her best to give prominence to a gloomy way of singing. She has a dark, elegant voice with a timbre that is perfectly suitable to evoke, if not a horrible image, an obscure, negative force. In this regard, the aria from the second part of the oratorio (Ombre nere della tomba) is her masterpiece: her voice is dim and deep, just audible above the instruments, and a little chanting, so that Death preserves his character despite the defeat and seems to retire as a shadow that leaves its place little by little, unwillingly, and with its gloomy character intact.
Sarragosse and Lucifer are a completely different matter. Lucifer is a versatile character and the dark voice is only the starting point to portray a faceted role. Not only Sarragosse enlivens Lucifer thanks to his flexible and rich voice, but he caricaturizes him for the sake of expression and to make him a humorous character – something that is (appropriately) blasphemous in an oratorio. If Death is a grey monument, Lucifer is a colourful painting, reminding of other bold, arrogant demons of other oratorios (the first that comes to my mind is the Lucifer of Handel’s Resurrezione).
Piety, Glory and Justice are all too sublime, too pure, too ethereal to be considered but gleams of light and the voices of Emanuela Galli, Philippe Jaroussky and François Piolino are so clear that cannot but strengthen this impression. They sing very well – Jaroussky’s inspiration, Galli’s luminous singing and Piolino’s abandonment are out of question – but nonetheless they are wrapped in gentle roles that do not leave them chance to do more than this. You can listen to them with pleasure, but, in comparison to the arias of Death and Lucifer, their numbers are less enjoyable.
If Bassani was compelled to follow the stereotype in Piety, Glory and Justice, there is one more “voice” in which he could express his creativity. This is the cornett, the instrument that, thanks to Jean Tubéry’s skill, reveals here all its powerful resources. Its sound is sweet, soft, suitable to every situation. It is a discreet accompanist of the voices in their arias, but there are moments, as in the two Sinfonias, in which it is the only protagonist and its charming, unusual sound and the talent of its virtuoso can be fully appreciated.
Bassani’s music for La morte delusa is an unexpected treasure in an unknown work by a minor composer and proves that, as there are works by great composers that are out-of-fashion and difficult to bear, it is possible to find fine and original compositions in composers that are not considered among the most outstanding and to like them and recognize that even in the most obscure branches of music there is still room for a pale light of genius.