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GRAMOPHONE (09/2014)
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Reviewer:  David Vickers

During the 1640s, Giuseppe (or Gioseffo) Zamponi became director of chamber music for the Spanish governor-general of the Low Countries, and his opera Ulisse all’isola di Circe (Brussels, 1650) celebrated the marriage of Philip IV of Spain and Maria Anna of Austria. Engraved illustrations of the sets and costumes from the original printed libretto are reproduced within three different essays in Ricercar’s fascinating book. Apparently the extant sources of Zamponi’s music indicate no rich instrumentations but Leonardo García Alarcón liberally sprinkles cornetti, recorders, bassoons and trombones – and employs a kaleidoscopic continuo team – in order to recolour numerous passages in the score (bassoons when the statues of Circe’s victims sing, etc). Numerous roles have been transposed to accommodate Alarcón’s chosen voices, and all such decisions are summarised amiably in producer Jérôme Lejeune’s essay.

Furio Zanasi’s Ulysses has the requisite weariness with hints of cunning intelligence when he lands on Circe’s mysterious island and wonders why his advance scouts have disappeared (Act 1 scene 1). Zachary Wilder’s gracefulness suits the mischievous Mercury disguised as a shepherd; Alarcón adds fidgety high recorders, just in case we miss that shepherds live in the countryside and play pipes (scene 3). Low recorders are used to subtler effect in the sinfonia that introduces Venus (scene 4), whose implacable fury towards Ulysses is characterised astutely by Mariana Flores. It is plausible that Ulysses finds it hard to resist Céline Scheen’s beguiling Circe, and their love duet ‘Languisco…Mi moro’ (scene 6) would not be unworthy of Cavalli’s Venetian operas. On the other hand, the Satyr’s ribald song at the end of Act 1 sounds like Celtic folk pipers jamming with the Penguin Café Orchestra. Act 3 begins with a gorgeous string ritornello but halfway through something suspiciously like a glockenspiel begins to double the top violin part. In the epilogue, cascades of descending organ lines sound more like 1970s prog rock than early Baroque opera (I love both, but not necessarily at the same time). The pervasive levels of interventionism make it impossible to judge Zamponi’s merits securely but at least the elaborate crew of performers produce plenty of sensual warmth and drama.

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