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GRAMOPHONE (07/2021)
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Reviewer: Richard Lawrence

Francesco Rasi was a tenor at the Gonzaga court. Though he took part in one of the first-ever operas, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (Florence, 1600), and sang Apollo in Marco da Gagliano’s Dafne (Mantua, 1608), his claim to fame lies in his having sung the title-role in the earliest opera in the repertory today, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Mantua, 1607).

Rasi was also a composer, and Mathilde Etienne (credited as ‘Conception’ in the list of performers) and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro have had the excellent idea of featuring songs by him (six tracks out of 17) along with pieces by contemporaries including Peri’s rival Giulio Caccini, whose singing pupil Rasi was. Gonzalez has recently performed Orfeo, as both singer and director, in a recording praised by Iain Fenlon (Naïve, 12/20). But there’s only one number here by Monteverdi, of which more anon.

The ‘dark sun’ of the title, which comes from a sonnet by Gérard de Nerval printed in the booklet, refers to melancholia. Of the two pieces by Rasi that open the disc, the first is apt enough, Orpheus lamenting the death of Eurydice in expressive recitative. But the second one, a rhapsody on the name ‘Phyllis’, reassures us that it’s not going to be all doom and gloom. In the booklet, Gonzalez follows Grove in suggesting a kinship between Giuseppino’s ‘Fuggi, fuggi’ and Vltava. Well, to misquote Eric Morecambe, the notes are in the right order but there’s a world of difference, in tempo, metre and character, between Smetana’s broadly flowing river and this lively demand for cold to depart and make way for spring. It’s followed by Apollo’s lament from Dafne: the last section features the coloratura for which Francesco Rasi was noted.

In this performance, the last note of the accompaniment to Peri’s ‘Un dì soletto’ is left hanging, presumably to illustrate the beloved’s silence. Another strophic song, Caccini’s ‘Dalla porta d’Oriente’, is, as Gonzalez points out, strikingly similar to ‘Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi’ in Orfeo. In ‘Amico, hai vinto’, Sigismondo d’India sets the same verses as those that end Monteverdi’s roughly contemporary Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda: penny plain by comparison, but heartfelt nonetheless.

Emiliano Gonzalez Toro honours his predecessor almost to perfection. The one miscalculation is ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ from Monteverdi’s Scherzi musicali of 1632, which is simply too fast and relentless. Listen to the playful subtlety of Patrizia Ciofi’s performance on Le Concert d’Astrée’s Monteverdi disc (Virgin/Erato, 2/07) to see how it can go. Otherwise, no complaints. Gonzalez has a beautiful voice, which he deploys with skill and sensitivity. The roulades are dispatched with vigour and accuracy, and time and again I find in my notes the word ‘delicacy’. The excellent continuo group of viola da gamba, theorbo and harp gets the chance to shine in preludes and interludes, and a couple of solos too. You might expect a recording of so much recitative and arioso to be dull: listening to these lively performances will confound any such thoughts.

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