Sunday, November 30, 2008
Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most prominent composers of opera in Italy during the Baroque period. Il Primo Omicidio, the first murder, is not an opera but rather an oratorio he wrote in 1707. Oratorios are like operas in that they have a poet (librettist) and composer. In the case of this oratorio, the librettist is unknown. Oratorios are different than operas, however, because they are not staged. They still have characters and dialogue but no sets, costumes or staging. Also, oratorios are sacred in subject matter while operas during this time period were based on Greek history and mythology. During the Church seasons of Advent and Lent, operas were not performed because they were seen as frivolous during a time when people were not allowed to have petty joys in their life. In their place, oratorios were performed.
This particular oratorio is about Cain and Abel. This Bible story is extremely dramatic and was a popular subject matter for oratorios at the time because the story line and the glorified quality composers could write for the first murder of humankind. Several other composers besides Scarlatti, including Metastasio and Johann Philipp Fortsch, composed for this Bible story, but Scarlatti’s oratorios is one of the most popular musical settings of the tale today.
Il Primo Omicidio was recorded by the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Rene Jacobs. The recording featured a group of about 18 instrumentalists and six singers, all of whom sang for a specific character. What I found most surprising about the singers on the recording is that the part of Cain is sung by an alto and Abel by a soprano. I thought during this time women were not allowed to sing in church, so it seems like in this oratorio women would certainly not be allowed to sing the lead roles of this oratorio. I would have enjoyed listening to countertenor singing these lead roles, but I am sure that it would awfully difficult to find male singers today who are able to sing these parts. Because castrati are no longer used today, Rene Jacobs utilized women.
The arias, especially “Nel Poter Il Nume Imita,” sung by the character of the Devil, are all wonderful hear. Just listening to this recorded version, I can imagine the voice of the Devil calling to Cain to tempt and convince him to kill his brother, Abel. I feel that Scarlatti’s music was enough to tell the story and staging or costumes would have taken away from the emotion and intensity that is present. Perhaps this was because of the fantastic work that Scarlatti was able to do with a melody. All his arias have the “singable” factor, meaning they are so catchy people can sing them after hearing them, causing the arias to become fairly popular. Another element of Scarlatti’s oratorio that I really liked was that the recitative was still fairly melodic. While the arias were still much more musical and expressive, the recitative was not merely a couple repeated notes. Scarlatti knew how to best convey the text in order to reveal this story to the audience. He knew how to incorporate elements to add to the dramatic quality of the story. Scarlatti also did such a good job with these musical elements that he did not need a chorus or a narrator; the story is completely told through the characters. Finally, the instrumental pieces that this oratorio features are just the perfect combination of tension and excitement. I can honestly feel myself tense up while listening to the overture just waiting for the story to begin. Scarlatti does a lot to help his audience anticipate what is coming next in the story.
I chose this oratorio because I recognized Scarlatti’s name. Some of his music is in the standard repertoire for singers such as “Le Violette.” I chose to listen to this oratorio to compare these short songs with a full-length work. This oratorio is not only darker but also much more dramatic than his art songs. Many of his arias, however, are very similar to the art songs because they are all in ABA form, or da capo arias. This album is my favorite of all the listening journals that we have done. This is because the music seems like it is something that is still relevant and similar to what is still popular today. In its entirety, I bet it is not often performed and that is a shame because I thought the entire piece was incredibly gripping. This oratorio was very entertaining and I hope that I can listen to many more in the future.