A Poor Case For Steffani’s Baccanali

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 5

Sound Quality: 7

Having been enchanted with Cecilia Bartoli’s CD of arias by the 17th century composer Agostino Steffani and knocked out by his opera, Niobe, I was happy to receive this set in the mail despite the fact that it is a pastoral in one act. Nymphs and shepherds don’t do it for me, but Steffani?

Well, the work is lovely–an 85 minute “event” written in 1695 for Duke Ernest Augustus of Hannover; the recording is taken from live performances in 2016 at the Festival della Valle d’Itria. The period instrumental ensemble plays one to a part, with a pair of violins, one each of harp, viola, cello, and violone, and pairs of recorders and oboes. A bit flimsy, but what do you need in Arcadia? The “plot” begins with Atlas complaining about the weight of the world and ends with Bacchus inviting everyone to sing and dance and drink; in between, lovers are teased and feelings hurt and mended, etc. Yes, flimsy.

As it turns out, that’s not the issue, and the playing of the Ensemble Cremona Antiqua is lovely and stylish. Sadly, the singing, I believe primarily by students, is mostly mediocre, sometimes very bad and occasionally very good. Yasushi Watanabe, as the shepherd Ergasto, has a light tenor that is not always reliable as to pitch, but it has a nice color, and in his lament with oboe, “Cara pace, dolce calma”, he is lovely. Countertenor/alto Riccardo Angelo Strano as both Bacchus and Tirsi also impresses. But the good news ends there: either coloratura is smudged, voices have far too much vibrato, high notes go shrill, or the timbre itself is awful. And so we’re left with music of charm–if not depth–and much of it falls unpleasantly on the ears. The dance sequences are lovely: instruments only.

The live venue means that there is thumping and voices going in and out of range. A world-premiere recording unworthy of its composer.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

  • Nicolo Donini (bass); Riccardo Angelo Strano (countertenor); Barbara Massaro, Victory Magnarello, Paola Leoci, Elena Caccamo (soprano); Chiara Manese (mezzo-soprano); Yasushi Watanabe (tenor)
  • Ensemble Cremona Antiqua, Antonio Greco

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