Cavalli's “Il Xerse” from Martina Franca

This remains an invaluable release, one full of cherishable moments

Cavalli's “Il Xerse” from Martina Franca

So, first of all this is not Handel's Xerxes - this is the first performance in modern times of Cavalli's Il Xerxe, taken from the Festival della Valle d'Itria at Martina Franca, Puglia, Italy and performed in a new critical edition by Sara Elisa Stangalino and Henrik Schulze, heard in the abridged vision (it still lasts two and a half hours).

Cavalli was organist at San Marco and later, Monteverdi's successor in Venice. His output was large: there are a number of operas, for which several have achieved fame and received multiple recordings, but this one has a real place in the Cavalli discography.

Last May, we covered Cavalli's L'Egisto from the Versailles label; back in early 2021, we brought you Pcihon's performance (this time on DVD/Bluray) of Ercole Amante. The opera Il Xerse was premiered in Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, in 1655.It is heard here in a phenomenally light, brisk and enervating performance, with the Orchestra Barocca Modo Antiquo on super form. The libretto is by Nicolò Minato based on Book 7 of Herodotus’ Histories, and in the Prologue concerns the King Xerxes’ preparations for the invasion of Greece. Thenceforth, Cavalli and Minato focus on court intrigue. The King is obsessed with his his brother Arsamene’s fiancée, Romilda, and abandons his own betrothed, Amastre, but of course there are other complicated aspects: Romilda though loves the King's brother Arsemene (it's reciprocal, but Arsamene is loved himself by Romilda's site Adalanta). A typical baroque opera plot, you might say.  The libretto, in turn, led to Bononcini's 1694 treatment of the story, which itself led to Handel's more famous opera of 1738.

The piece is labelled as a dramma per musica in a Prologue and Three Acts , but includes comic moments. provided by Arsamene's page, Elviro. Given that this is an abridged version, though, the Prologue is omitted here (and there are other cuts).

Xerse himself is psychologically complex , prone to melancholy. And, for this listener at least, it is the score’s more interior moments that have the greatest impact, in particular two laments in the final act: the first by Romilda, the excellent soprano Carolina Lippo, “Che Barbara pietà!" (What barbarous mercy!); the second by Xerxe himself - "Lasciatemi morir, stella spietate!" (Let me die, ruthless stars!). In this last in particular, Cavalli's vocal line creates some heart-rending dissonance with the continuo bass. In the title role, counter-tenor Carlo Vistoli excels.

All of the parts are well taken: someone cast this with real thought behind characterisation. Cavalli's parts are generally high (there are three soprano roles, two countertenors - the other Nicolò Balducci's Periarco) and a mezzo (Arsamene, and parts that are high for a mezzo) against two tenors and one bass. Variations between the voices ae well marked within the same range though: Ekaterina Protsenko's Amastre is notably bright, for example.

Here's trailer for the actual production:

Sardelli has the perfect ear for dramatic thrust, yet can let the music breathe as necessary (Scene 5 of the first act works brilliantly in this regard). The experience benefits highly from following with libretto, not included in physical format with the product but nevertheless available online here.

A Blu-ray and DVD of this performance were released on the Dynamic label (DYN-57983 & DYN-37983), but actually thee is a real case here for sound-only, which focuses the ear on Cavalli's melodic and dramatic genius. Apparently in the staging itself, whenever there was an aside, the characters clapped. They do so quietly, in that case, as on audio it is not interruptive, but might well grate visually. This remains an invaluable release, chock-full of cherishable moments and performed to the highest standard: the playing of the instrumental group is a constant source of delight.

Some might have the René Jacobs (which , released in 2007, does not benefit from the critical edition); to which the Sardelli now forms an essential companion. With Judith Nelson among the cast for Jacobs though, and Jacobs himself singing Xerse as well as directing (!), the olde set remains more than worthwhile....

The twofer of CDs is available on Naxos here; Spotifies below: