The Chapel Royal of Naples was the sacred musical establishment of the Spanish court in Naples, beginning with the Aragonese Court of Naples and continuing under the Habsburgs, the Bourbons and Joseph Napoleon. Influence of the Spanish rule in Baroque Naples was an element running through most of the works heard at this concert. Cristofaro Caresana (1640-1709) was born in Venice but settled in Naples before the age of 20; there he worked in theatre, was a singer and organist in the Royal Chapel, then becoming maestro di cappella of the Conservatorio di S. Onofrio in 1668. Caresana’s works have received little to no performances in Israel. One could surmise that the PHOENIX performance of three of the composer’s succinct, quasi-theatrical Nativity cantatas were Israeli premieres. Colored by the composer’s dissatisfaction with Spanish rule in Naples, “La Caccia del Toro” (Hunting the Bull) presents the dilemma between Toro the bull (baritone Guy Pelc) and Humility (soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir). (Choosing Toro as a character also suggests criticism of the fact that the Spanish wanted to introduce bull-fighting into Naples). Guy Pelc gave an intense portrayal of the unbending, power-struck Toro, his sturdy, rich voice ringing out dramatically, changing with each gesture, as he vied with the wise, courageous figure of Humility, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir. She was expressive, well cast and “proud to bear the title of damsel”. The intensity of the work was broken minimally by few choruses, a gentle and beautifully crafted duet sung by tenor Jacob Halperin with the mellow involvement of contralto Yael Izkovich, as well as some pleasing instrumental moments, with beautifully wrought recorder playing (also, throughout the program) on the part of Uri Dror and Adi Silberberg.
No less unconventional in character is Caresana’s “La Tarantella”, in which it is thought we hear the first ever appearance of the tarantella melody in art music. In a setting of the sophisticated text, encompassing pastoral folklore and the Bible, the artists, opening with angels (Michal Okon, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir) waking the sleeping shepherds on stage with the news of Christ’s birth. This small masterpiece was steeped with energy and joy, the gentle use of castanets a reminder of Spanish presence in Naples. Here, in an intimate and convincing soliloquy, we hear Pelc now portraying an anguished, and dejected Pluto:
‘I flutter over the vast sky
Too disdainful of beauties,
But I have fallen, so now I sigh,
Blind King of an ominous empire
Fulminated giant, black angel…’
Jacob Halperin’s bright, clean tenor solo was gratifying, as was the entertaining echo piece, naïve in its confirmation of the details of the Christmas story. The four singers, constantly alert, effectively fused short phrases into unified sections made up of fast-exchange responses to create a crowd scene. The tarantella chorus itself, varied in scoring, supported by pleasing filigree plucked sounds and interludes, provided the centerpiece of the work:
‘To the rocks, the burrows, the forests
The wild beasts have become docile.
Every square in the woods is flowery,
As life returns to the world.
To the forests, the valleys, the caves,
Cherish, revere, worship this beautiful night!’
“La Veglia” (The Vigil) offers the most unconventional and daring of the three plots. The setting is a game of “Ombre”, a card game popular in 17th century Naples. Jesus is portrayed as a gambler who, dying, wins the game. In this work of strong characterization, fine, joyous dance music and rich tonal effects, all singers displayed involvement and understanding of the decidedly theatrical aspect of the work, as its as yet unresolved moral dilemma posed questions to the listener. With Herzog’s settings never static, instrumental textures produced constant new color, Adi Silberberg’s playing of the colascione (a plucked instrument of the lute family) infusing the ensemble sound with delicate color and authenticity. With the singers gradually moving forward, we heard the soothing legato lines of the magical “Dormi o ninno” (Sleep, little baby) lullaby suspended over a simple but inebriating ostinato accompaniment evoking the rocking of a baby. The cantata ended on a joyful note, with singers and Herzog herself joining to ‘give applause…to the value of the player…’ Myrna Herzog drew her settings for the cantatas from the manuscripts themselves and translated the Italian texts into English. Uri A. Dror translated the latter into Hebrew. Hearing these works performed was a fine opportunity to appreciate the style of Naples’ specific form of religiosity – a spontaneous, gregarious and “secular” affair, one of angels and devils, celebrated with works that were vigorous and ostentatious, an aesthetic of color, directness and contrasts. These vivacious performances of the Caresana cantatas, therefore, were a reminder of the sumptuous Christmas festivities and performances in Naples, the immense and chaotic capital of the Spanish viceroyalty. Myrna Herzog’s staging, though understated, pointed to the focus and meaning of each development.
The Abu Gosh program included two instrumental works by Andrea Falconieri (c.1640-1709). Born in Naples, lutenist, theorbist and guitarist Falconieri made his living as a lutenist at the court in Parma, also in Florence, Rome and Modena. Peripatetic in lifestyle, he spent several years in Spain before returning to Italy. His only book of instrumental music was published in 1650, with each piece dedicated to a member of Spanish nobility residing in Naples. Herzog’s instrumentation brought out the inner emotional and descriptive content of each piece. In “La Suave Melodia”, she had the melody alternating between violin (Tali Goldberg) and recorder (Silberberg), setting each against a differentiated continuo. In the second part of the piece – a Corrente – Herzog told me she had “played even more with instrumentation, alternating solo and tutti and adding Spanish-like percussion”. In “Battalla de Barabaso yemo de Satanas” (Battle of Barabbas, Son-in-law of Satan) we are once again confronted with the conflict of good and evil but, despite the work’s religious implications, Falconieri was also making a political statement…that he supported the Spanish, the devils representing the Italians!! For this piece, Myrna Herzog chose four instruments – two violins, two recorder - rather than two, to engage in battle. The result was colorful. This was music-making to be seen as well as heard. Lutenists were the instrumental stars of their day and Falconieri’s itinerant life and opinions showed him to be no conventional character; however, the PHOENIX instrumentalists gave a finely balanced, elegant and well varied performance of the work, vivid but never excessive.The ensemble was absolutely superb.
The concert had one more treat in store – soprano Michal Okon’s solo performance of Orazio Michi dell’Arpa’s strophic lullaby “Ninna nanna al bambino Gesù (Lullaby for baby Jesus). Now virtually unknown, Orazio Michi (1595-1641) was born near Naples, entering into the service of Cardinal Montalto in Rome at a young age and then of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy. He was a virtuoso who hobnobbed with high society. Admired for his virtuosic playing of the harp, his playing was compared with that of Frescobaldi on the harpsichord and Kapsberger, on theorbo. No new face to PHOENIX and the early music scene, Michal Okon has performed and held master classes in Israel, Europe and the USA, also promoting contemporary works. Her tender, unmannered performance of “Ninna nanna” was communicative, exquisitely tranquil and warm, her voice well projected into the dimensions of the church.