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Fanfare Magazine: 38:1 (09-10/2014) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

While there are likely archives and city records somewhere detailing more information about Giuseppe Zamponi than we have, little has currently come to light. We know that he was born sometime during the first decade-and-a-half of the 17th century, probably in or near Rome, and held a series of positions that culminated in service to the powerful Cardinal Pietro Maria Borghese. He subsequently moved to the Spanish Netherlands, where he found a patron in Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, then the province’s governor. In 1648 Zamponi was put in charge of composing the music for Ulisse, now thought to be the first opera given its premiere in Brussels, and commissioned to honor the wedding of Spain’s King Philip IV. Leopold was an extravagant lover of the arts, and spent unstintingly on all aspects of the work’s performance. So positive was his reaction to the results that it was revived for two performances in 1650, and again in 1655, when the former Queen Christina of Sweden traveled to Brussels to accept Roman Catholicism. That may not seem like a huge performance history, but then, this wasn’t an opera written for the public theaters. It was a musical gem in the equivalent of Leopold’s jewel box, to be taken out like any other and admired when he felt like it.

The opera itself is typical Venetian musical fare of the period, a mix of still fluid, heightened recitative with many short airs, introductory ritornellos, and even a few duets. (One, “Languisco,” is so close in several important respects to the concluding “Pur ti miro” duet of L’incoronazione die Poppea as to suggest Zamponi was very familiar with the latter, and possibly with much else by Cavalli—who has been put forth as a possible composer of it.) The tale of Ulysses, his men, and Circe from The Odyssey is given here in a variant that offers plenty of gods interfering for good and ill. It reaches a celestial face-off at the conclusion of act II, when suddenly the plot halts: Jupiter starts act III heaping flattery and blessings directly on Philip IV and his bride. The other gods happily add theirs. Although this seems peculiar today, it was not uncommon at a time when operas commissioned for private use by the nobility sometimes concluded with flattering praise of the regional powers. (The so-called Weissenfels Almira libretto that Reinhard Keiser set in 1704, complete with an elaborate epilog praising the visiting Elector Palatine, stems from this tradition.)

Where the performance of early opera is concerned, there remains a degree of guesswork. Surviving accounting books can show us what instruments were on hand at some mid-century Venetian opera houses, but we also know that the contemporary European mindset didn’t see the musical score as a finished product. It was subject to change through financial necessity, second thoughts, other composers’ thoughts, impresario’s thoughts, the availability of musicians, and the command of patrons. That noted, Alarcón here justifies changes to orchestration, voice type, and pitch, through conclusions for which he has no concrete evidence. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that, despite the single complete surviving manuscript specifying only strings for each part, it’s possible that while winds and brass were not considered a regular part of the contemporary orchestra at the time, they might have been included since they were available as separate ensembles at the Spanish court in Brussels. Attaching specific instruments to different gods—high flutes to Mercury, trombones to Neptune, low flutes to Venus, etc.—is far less likely, as is changing the continuo in the middle of recitative passages, subtracting and adding instruments for color, as though the continuo were a separate, modern orchestra in itself. At least Alarcón doesn’t add Arabic polyrhythms, or bagpipes, galoubet, kaval, ney, and the panoply of other instruments he applied recently to a recording of Falzetti’s Nabucco, offering the bizarre excuse that Biblical times would have had them available. By such standards, this Ulisse with its large Renaissance Technicolor Orchestra is almost austere.

He’s a conductor at the same time who typically secures performances from his singers that express shifting emotions within the text, while remaining fully musical. Ulisse is no exception in this respect. Dynamic shading, variations in vibrato, emphasized consonants, accented syllables, extended vowels: These all help establish a theatrically vivid Ulisse throughout its lengthy pages of recitative.

Another point in Alarcón’s favor is the range of basic vocal color in his soloists. I suspect it’s the flipside to his pleasure taken in an oversaturated orchestra, but no two of his singers within the same voice range could be mistaken for one another. The Venus of Mariana Flores sounds wisp-thin, with a flicker vibrato that eerily drains away in expressing her disgust of Ulysses, while Céline Scheen (recently a Venus herself, in a DVD of Blow’s Venus & Adonis, Alpha 703) has a finely focused tone with darker shades, and a dramatic flair that make for a seductive Circe. Similarly, Sergio Foresti’s deep, resonant Neptune is easily distinguished from the lighter, almost baritonal bass of Matteo Belloto. Dominque Visse is so close to a mezzo as to sound like the real thing, while Fabián Schofrin, on the other hand, perpetuates the tight, throaty, opaque-sounding stereotype with which the countertenor clan is often tarred.

If Schofrin’s is the worst performance in this set, it’s difficult to pick the best. All the others I’ve mentioned are excellent, to which Furio Zanasi’s can be added, as well. I’ve repeatedly admired in the past his agile, youthful baritone voice and his dramatic insight. He sustains the central role easily, and with Scheen turns in a varied and passionate version of the already mentioned “Languisco.” The monologue, “E pur sei giunto al fine” finds Flores in fine form; and if Zachary Wilder is only moderately successful with Mercury’s coloratura in his florid “Nova gioia,” his sweet tenor and distinguished delivery in the subsequent recitative, “Già ch’a seguir sei pronto,” more than compensate. Finally, Visee is in far better voice here than I’ve heard him in several other recent recordings. He also avoids most of the horrendous mugging that has afflicted nurse and servant roles in recent revivals of 17th-century operas (The Lou Costello School of Baroque Performance), of which Ian Honeyman’s Amalta in Cavina’s version of Poppea remains the worst example I’ve heard on record to date. Visee’s delightfully characterized “Chi voi lunga età” is a good example of his art.

Alarcón’s also chooses sensible, flexible tempos that follow the natural inflections of the language and emotional state of each character. Textures are always clear, though (as mentioned above) they change color at a rate that is sometimes kaleidoscopic.

The engineering is well-defined, with singers never overpowered by the orchestra. The CD format is that digest-sized we’re seeing more often lately with seldom recorded operas. While it does allow for lengthier essays and a greater number of them, it has to be said that one in this set accepts as conclusive a series of arguments that are by no means accepted by all musicologists (such as that madrigals were the direct ancestors of opera), and a second utilizes the ellipsis as a regular substitute for the period. That alone would guarantee the writer a term of required public service in any civilized nation.

I need hardly tell you again my impressions of Alarcón’s imaginative views on orchestration. But I will say that the music to Ulisse is good, if not up to top drawer Cavalli, and that the performances bring life to the whole thing. Recommended.

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