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Steffani: Orlando generoso Box set

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  • Performer: Daniel Lager, Roberta Invernizzi, Susanne Rydén, Kai Wessel, Jörg Waschinski, et al.
  • Orchestra: Musica Alta Ripa
  • Conductor: Bernward Lohr
  • Composer: Agostino Steffani
  • Audio CD (9 Sept. 2013)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 3
  • Format: Box set
  • Label: MDG
  • ASIN: B002A5ZM24
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 322,552 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. Orlando Generoso - Various Performers - Various Performers

Product Description

MDG 3091566; MDG - GERMANIA; Classica Lirica

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Here is a rare treat for lovers of baroque opera and of early music in general. Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), composer, diplomat and priest, was a musician of exceptional talent and originality, revered in his time - by the young Handel among many others - but unfortunately little heard today, at least until recently. "Orlando generoso" (1691) is one of a number of operas he wrote for the prestigious Hannover court where, as is soon evident from hearing the music, he was able to call on many of the finest musicians of his time.

At first sight it would be easy to dismiss the plot as the usual baroque opera nonsense, involving pairs of lovers of varying constancy, mistaken identities, rough justice and wrongful imprisonment, not to mention miraculous last-minute conversions to the virtues of repentance, generosity and forgiveness. At an early stage the action suddenly switches from the Pyrenees to China, but with no discernible effect on the style of the music. However, the storyline, based on Ariosto's epic Orlando furioso, offers telling psychological insights into some of the characters, especially the hero Orlando's progression through love, madness, despair and renunciation; and, what is more, these insights are powerfully expressed in Steffani's music. The score consists of many beautiful, varied, concise but characterful arias and duets, none of which ever outstays its welcome; these are interspersed with recitative, where much of the action and character development takes place and where monotony is avoided by frequent merging into arioso passages.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Justice at last for neglected genius of the baroque 11 Aug. 2009
By Stephen Midgley - Published on
Here is a rare treat for lovers of baroque opera and of early music in general. Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), composer, diplomat and priest, was a musician of exceptional talent and originality, revered in his time - by the young Handel among many others - but unfortunately little heard today, at least until recently. "Orlando generoso" (1691) is one of a number of operas he wrote for the prestigious Hanover court where, as is soon evident from hearing the music, he was able to call on many of the finest musicians of his time.

At first sight it would be easy to dismiss the plot as the usual baroque opera nonsense, involving pairs of lovers of varying constancy, mistaken identities, rough justice and wrongful imprisonment, not to mention miraculous last-minute conversions to the virtues of repentance, generosity and forgiveness. At an early stage the action suddenly switches from the Pyrenees to China, but with no discernible effect on the style of the music. However, the storyline, based on Ariosto's epic "Orlando furioso", offers telling psychological insights into some of the characters, especially the hero Orlando's progression through love, madness, despair and renunciation; and, what is more, these insights are powerfully expressed in Steffani's music. The score consists of many beautiful, varied, concise but characterful arias and duets, none of which ever outstays its welcome; these are interspersed with recitative, where much of the action and character development takes place and where any hint of monotony is avoided by frequent merging into arioso passages. Soon after the start of the work comes the first of many duets; and so here, before we know it, we find ourselves drawn into the exquisite world of Steffani's speciality, that of the vocal duet, in which graceful melodic lines and delicious suspensions are interwoven in a way equalled by few other composers.

The performance of all this lovely music, moreover, is of a very high order. Musica Alta Ripa, under the expert direction of Bernward Lohr at the keyboard, are an extremely talented and experienced early music ensemble, and the continuo, strings and various wind instruments all deliver a stylish, spirited and effective interpretation of the music. The singing cast are also first-class - and just as well for, as suggested above, they need to be. There are especially fine roles for sopranos Roberta Invernizzi and Susanne Rydén, as well as for countertenors Kai Wessel (as Orlando) and Daniel Lager, which they all carry off beautifully. As for the bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich, in the role of the magician Atlante, he deserves a gallantry medal for the way he successfully tackles some fiendishly difficult passages. Finally, the happy ending (sorry for giving it away!) enables the cast and orchestra to bring the opera to a rousing and tuneful conclusion.

The work is recorded live, so there are a few stage thumps and sound effects to be heard but no perceptible audience noise. In fact the recording is beautifully balanced and detailed, and does full justice to both voices and instruments.

Altogether, this is a bold project by this adventurous German record label, and as things stand at the moment (August 2009) it is by far the most successful recording of a complete opera by this brilliant and fascinating composer. Now we can only hope for more of the same from MDG and from the other enterprising record companies that are still around. In the meantime, baroque music lovers who wish to investigate Steffani's music further could try his "Stabat Mater" or other sacred works and, for instrumental music, the opera suites or "Sonate da camera" - but above all, by hook or by crook, try to hear one of the rare available recordings of his truly exquisite "Duetti da camera". Record companies, if you ever read these reviews, please pay attention here: we need new recordings of more of Steffani's wonderful chamber duets to add to the superb examples on Pan Classics, Archiv and, especially, Glossa - the latter two now unfortunately deleted but still to be found in a few places*. And music lovers, if you want to know more about Steffani's life and work, take a look at the fascinating biography by Colin Timms, "Polymath of the Baroque: Agostino Steffani and His Music".

*Update: since the above was written, Glossa have re-issued their disc of Steffani's Duetti da Camera in March 2011: Duetti Da Camera. Beautifully sung by Rossana Bertini and Claudio Cavina, this is an absolute delight.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From Monteverdi to Handel 28 Jan. 2013
By Caveat Auditor - Published on
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Daniel Lager, Counter Tenor - Galafro
Roberta Invernizzi, Soprano - Angelica
Susanne Ryden, Soprano - Bradamante
Kai Wessel, Counter Tenor - Orlando
Franz Vitzthum, Counter Tenor - Ruggiero
Jorg Waschinski, High Counter Tenor - Medoro
Wolf Matthias Friedrich, Baritone - Atlante
Musica Alta Ripa, Cond. Bernward Lohr

"Orlando generoso" was composed in 1691 for the court of Duke Ernst August of Hanover by Agostino Steffani, (b Castelfranco, nr. Venice, 25 July 1654; d Frankfurt, 12 Feb 1728). It is based on the renaissance best-seller epic poem by Lodovico Ariosto, "Orlando furioso." The first version was written in 1516 and the poem was published in its final version in 1532. It is one of the most influential martial epic poems between the Homer's "Illiad" and Tasso's "Gerusalemme liberata." Briefly, the epic describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando, and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens with diversions into many side plots, and, providing so much rich literary material, became a favorite for opera librettists and composers. Any opera composer claiming to be worthy of the title wrote at least one opera based on Ariosto's epic between the middle baroque and classical eras.

"Among the earliest were Francesco Caccini's "La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina" from 1625 and Luigi Rossi's "Il palazzo incantato" (1642). Antonio Vivaldi wrote three operas on themes from Ariosto: "Orlando furioso" (1713), "Orlando finto pazzo" (1714) and "Orlando" (1727). Perhaps the most famous operas inspired by the poem are those by Handel: "Orlando" (1733), "Ariodante" and "Alcina" (1735). In France, Jean-Baptiste Lully turned to Ariosto for his tragédie en musique "Roland" (1685). Rameau's comic opera "Les Paladins" (1760) is based on a story in canto 18 of Orlando. The enthusiasm for operas based on Ariosto continued into the Classical era and beyond with such examples as Niccolò Piccinni's "Roland" (1778), Haydn's "Orlando paladino" (1782), Méhul's "Ariodant" (1799) and Simon Mayr's "Ginevra di Scozia" (1801). Ambroise Thomas wrote a comedic one act "Angélique et Médor" in 1843, the last gasp in the string of hundreds of operas based on Ariosto.

In the main theme of Ariosto's epic, Orlando, Charlemagne's most famous paladin, has been tempted to forget his duty to protect the emperor through his love for the pagan princess Angelica. At the beginning of the poem, Angelica escapes from the castle of the Bavarian Duke Namo, and Orlando sets off in pursuit. The two meet with various adventures until Angelica saves a wounded Saracen knight, Medoro, falls in love, and elopes with him to Cathay.

When Orlando learns the truth, he goes mad with despair and rampages through Europe and Africa destroying everything in his path. The English knight Astolfo journeys to Ethiopia on the hippogriff to find a cure for Orlando's madness.

He thereupon flies up to the moon (in Elijah's flaming chariot no less) where everything lost on earth is to be found, including Orlando's wits. He brings them back in a bottle and makes Orlando sniff them, thus restoring him to sanity. (At the same time Orlando falls out of love with Angelica, as the author explains that love is itself a form of insanity.)

Another important plotline involves the love between the female Christian warrior Bradamante and the Saracen Ruggiero. They too have to endure many vicissitudes.

Ruggiero is taken captive by the sorceress Alcina and has to be freed from her magic island. He also has to avoid the enchantments of his foster father, the wizard Atlante, who does not want him to fight. Finally, Ruggiero converts to Christianity and marries Bradamante.

Rodomonte appears at the wedding feast and accuses him of being a traitor to the Saracen cause, and the poem ends with Ruggiero slaying Rodomonte in single combat. Ruggiero and Bradamante are the ancestors of the House of Este, Ariosto's patrons, whose genealogy he gives at length in canto 3 of the poem.

The epic contains many other characters, including Orlando's cousin, the paladin Rinaldo, who is also in love with Angelica; the thief Brunello; and the tragic heroine Isabella."

Librettists took many liberties with Ariosto's poem, and changed the details of the epic and its sub-plots according to their whims while maintaining the characters and general premises. Steffani's "Orlando generoso" is an excellent example of this trend.

The Librettist of "Orlando generoso," Ortensio Mauro, used Orlando's going mad as the main plot of the opera while weaving the side plot of Bradamante and Ruggiero into the action. Considering that 46 cantos comprising thousands of lines of ottava rima are condensed into a fairly simple libretto, it is presupposed that audiences are thoroughly familiar with the poem to fill in the blanks or risk becoming hopelessly confused by the action (which is what happens to audiences today; it wasn't an issue in 1691).

Steffani's "Orlando generoso" is musically a highly interesting opera due to the fact that late 17th century Italian operas are sadly under-represented in the recording catalog. French opera and music in the second half of the 1600's has been recorded quite extensively, with numerous works by Lully, Charpentier, Campra, etc. having been recorded over the past three decades. To my knowledge, this recording is the only, or one of a very few, recorded examples of Italian opera between Cavalli's "Ercole amante" from 1662 and the remains of Handel's "Rodrigo" from 1707.

"Orlando generoso" shows that Steffani was a rather conservative composer, since the opera contains many stylistic derivatives from the operas of Cavalli and Stradella. The influence of French opera is essentially limited to a French overture to begin the work, which was unusual for Italian composers, but became standard for Handel, a few instrumental dance movements and the final Chaconne en rondeau.

One interesting similarity with the operas of Handel and Vivaldi is that Steffani holds off on his best music until the second and third acts. Considering the Italian habit - preserved until today - of arriving at performances well after the announced starting time as well as the fact that in the baroque era, opera houses were social clubs where patricians dined and entertained loudly in their loggias, it is understandable that a composer wouldn't waste his best music on the first hour of people arriving, greeting each other and chatting politely with the music playing in the background.

Consequently, Act 1 predominantly contains arias accompanied only by the basso continuo. The surprising element is the recitatives. They are much more melodic and expressive than Handel's or Vivaldi's, and are in fact reminiscent of those found in Cavalli's operas, when recitative and aria weren't separate entities, but often tended to proceed one from the other. It is therefore inadvisable to press the "skip" button to get to the "real" music, as one might be tempted to in later Italian opera, because the recitatives are worth hearing for the dramatic quality of their music. The recitatives represent another throw-back in style, since they often involve three or even four characters. By Handel's and Vivaldi's time, secco recitative mostly involves one or two characters.

Atlante's first aria, accompanied by basso continuo only is a nice opening piece in catabile style, and typical of the arias in this operas which are not accompanied by the "orchestra" or obbligato instruments. The stand-out in act I is Bradamante's "S'ho perduto ogni mio bene" a beautiful slow aria, one of the longest in the entire opera, lasting `4:18. The lovely slow cantabile is accompanied by double recorders and features some nice chromaticism. It has a very contrasting fast B section with abrupt moments of recitando, before returning to the slow da capo section nicely ornamented by Ryden. The overall effect is reminiscent of Stradella at his best, as in, e.g., the gorgeous aria "Io per me non piangerei" from his oratorio "San Giovanni Battista" (alas, none of Stradella's operas have been recorded yet).

Angelica's "Per brevi momenti" is likewise a lovely aria, one which is accompanied by the "orchestra" throughout. In fact, the orchestra consists of various instrumental combinations in trio sonata constellations, as pioneered by Monteverdi in his 7th Book of Madrigals.This aria is accompanied by violin, oboe and basso continuo. The B section shows off Angelicas low register in contrast to a higher tessitura in the A section, a lovely contrast well-executed by Invernizzi.

In general, Steffani shows great inventiveness in contrasting his B sections to the A sections, and this holds the listener's attention during the first act.

Continuo arias are beautifully written as in Atlante's first aria "Piu caro Tesoro" for example, shifts from double to triple metre in B section, and other arias employ the Monteverdi-Cavallian technique of orchestral ritornelli, or instrumental postludes at the end of an aria or arioso accompanied by basso continuo. The latter are an element Cavalli introduced in his "French" operas that was picked up by Lully and became a staple of middle baroque French opera. To those unfamiliar with French operas by Lully, this device was often used by Purcell.

Act I only contains two Duets. "O mia vita" is very much reminiscent of Cavalli, who was a master of writing meltingly beautiful slow as well as faster dance-like vocal duets. In fact Steffani's aria resembles the famous final duet with Nero and Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea," a fact that is underscored by Monteverdi's libretto, which reads:

"Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,
pur ti stringo, pur t'annodo,
più non peno, più non moro,
o mia vita, o mi tesoro."

Steffani had a good grasp of vocal technique - obviously, being a singer - and demanded some challenging passages from his singers. In Orlando's "In quest'alma che langue che geme" we find a very long roulade requiring a high degree of breath control. In this area, he demands more from his singers than Cavalli did, and which were only introduced by Stradella and his contemporaries.

Act II
Steffani's interchanging of fast and slow arias, solos and duets and harmonic progression show a nice sense of pacing, an area where Handel would later become the unsurpassed master in baroque opera.
Act II contains a remarkable 10-minute long sequence of uninterrupted solos, duos and recitatives involving Angelica, Ruggiero and Orlando, which announces Angelica's and Ruggiero's incipient love and sows the germ of Orlando's madness as he listens in on the two lovers-to-be. "Se t'ecclisi o bella face" starts with a lovely slow aria with violin obbligato and bassoon as the basso continuo, beautifully sung, for Angelica; it is followed by "Vive stele a me splendete" with oboe obliggato for Ruggiero, a likewise slow continuation of Angelica's aria. It is one of the high points of the opera.

Shortly afterwards, comes a duet in stile concitato, "Senza volermi udir" for Ruggiero and Bradamante. It is a hallmark of this opera that the second and third acts contain an unusually large number of duets for the Italian operatic style, more so than by any other composer since Monteverdi's opera "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria," which likewise contains a large number of duets and trios. It is in Act II that Steffani fully unleashes his dramatic skills, with the arias "Chi provo gli astri severi," a dancing, syncopated aria which again reflects Stradella and Cavalli. Orlando's madness is let loose in the aria "Armi, stragi, vendetta, furor," in a fully orchestrated, concitato style, a moment looking forward to Handel's great "affect" arias expressing rage.

Atlante's "Ombre del cieco abisso" heralds an appearance of the forces of hell, a typical element in French operas, originally developed in Cavalli's "La Callisto." Here, Steffani disappoints somewhat. Instead of introducing a mood of mystery and horror, done so well earlier by Cavalli and subsequently by Lully, Steffani uses the opportunity to reel off a virtuoso aria in a major key.

Act II starts out with Atalante's aria "Mal concertate moli," which, with its repeated note concitato accompaniment is one of the most forward looking of Steffani's arias in this opera. Act III also introduces a highly unusual musical element called "Monologo." There are two of these in Act III: Orlando's "Eumenidi lasciate mi" and "Io dunque senz'arm,"both for Orlando and lasting `4:40 and `7:57 respectively, the longest scenes for a single singer in the entire opera.

I can only speculate that these two scenes for the protagonist are rooted in Monteverdi's "Lettera amorosa" from the 7th Madrigal Book, which was subsequently imitated by other compoers, most notably in Rome by Mazzocchi around 1650. "Eumenidi lasciate mi" is an aria concitata with full orchestral accompaniment and many changes in style and orchestration, including portamento vibrato in the strings. "Io dunque senz'armi " starts out with fast virtuoso roulades and shifts tempo to a slow "doloroso" aria to secco recitativo to another aria section accompanied by repeated knocking notes, reminiscent of the music accompanying the "Hades Scene" in Cavalli's "L'Arianna."

Orlando's "madness" brings forth Steffani's finest music, just like it did in Handel's 1732 opera "Orlando," one of his late operatic masterpieces. In the "Mad Scene" at the end of Act II, Handel follows a 17th-century tradition - exemplified by Steffani's two "Monologues" - by constructing a series of apparently unrelated episodes. But there is something else. Besides including a few notorious bars in quintuple time, as Orlando imagines himself descending into Hades, there's also a recurrent Gavotte-like passage that symbolises Orlando's struggle to retain his mind - a neat musically unifying device that serves a psycho-dramatic purpose.

It would be taking matters too far to speculate about a connection back to Steffani's "Orlando generoso," but it is a tempting thought nonetheless. The last act ends with two choruses in an extended madrigal style, which is, again, an archaic element. Cavalli, Lully and later composers used short, homophonic choruses in their operas. This was particularly true of Italian opera, which generally used the singers in the leading roles for the chorus, since hiring a mass of choristers was considered an unnecessary expense in a for-profit business. In France, with royal patronage, large choruses were standard fare in operas, since there the composer did not have to worry about cost but rather about appearance. The final chorus "Amanti fortunate" would not have sounded much out of place had it been included in a performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. The opera finishes with a fine Chaconne which would surely have gotten high marks from Lully.

Steffani's "Orlando generoso" clearly had an impact on the musical scene of its time. This is demonstrated by the fact that a collection of arias from the opera were published in Lübeck by Johann Wiedemeyer with both the Italian text as well as a German translation as late as 1699. This was quite unusual in an era when operas were "pop music" only heard in short runs and subsequently trashed when the next and more modern opera came along. [...]

Daniel Lager as Galafro has a nice alto counter tenor voice with good tessitura transitions and excellent technical agility. He sings with nice straight tone and uses vibrato tastefully as ornamentation. His performance, however, somewhat lacking in personality and he fails to fully express the dramatic parts of his role.

Soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Angelica is outstanding in this recording. She has extensive experience in the repertoire and has been featured alongside some of the best singers of baroque repertoire in a number of excellent recordings, such as the fabulous recording of Handel: Le Cantate per il Cardinal Pamphili with Fabio Bonizzoni on Glossa Music; Handel's Rodrigo and Floridante with Gloria Banditelli, Sandrine Piau, Joyce DiDonato and Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis on Virgin Classics and Deutsche Grammophon.

Susanne Ryden, Soprano, sings the role of Bradamante. She is unfortunately one of the weakest cast members. Ryden sings in tune, has a good sense of style and technique, but has a rapid, bleaty vibrato which is quite irritating to listen to. In slow arias, she sings relatively vibrato-free, thus lessening the moments of irritation, but she uses her vibrato more often in fast arias, during which, unfortunately, it gets even closer to the sound of a billy goat.

Counter tenor Kai Wessel is so-so in the role of Orlando. I am surprised that his singing isn't of a higher quality, since I have heard him live and came away with a very positive impression. He has also participated as a soloist in recordings with Junghänel and Herreweghe for Harmonia Mundi and in Koopman's project to record Bach's complete vocal works, where his rendition of Bach's "Widerstehe doch der Sünde," BWV 54, is, in my opinion, the finest version recorded to date. He sings in tune and executes well technically, but the sound of his voice is not beautiful and his vibrato is also on the fast side. He, too, is sometimes lacking in a sense of drama. Alas, most of his recordings were made in the 90's and become fewer and fewer in number approaching 2004. It seems that time has not been kind to his voice.

Franz Vitzthum's Ruggiero, another counter tenor part, is generally quite good and is in all respects among the better on this album. He possesses a beautiful voice and shows good musicianship.

Jorg Waschinski sings Medoro, a high counter tenor role. He does not have a particularly beautiful voice; sounds forced at times and has moments when he sings slightly out of tune. His vocal technique is decent. Waschinski does improve as the recording progresses, so since this is a live recording, he may have a case of nerves, which, one surmises, may also be the case with Ryden. Her performance doesn't improve as much as Waschinski's, though.

Baritone Wolf Matthias Friedrich, as Atlante, is the second outstanding singer on this album, fully in the same league as Invernizzi. He has a gorgeous, rich and sonorous baritone voice, excellent technique and a good sense of the dramatic element in his performance. He has recorded Bach's B minor Mass and the Missae breves BWV 233-36 with Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel for Harmonia Mundi; Biber's Vespro della Beata Vergine with La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata conducted by Roland Wilson for Sony Classical; and several Handel operas and oratorios, such as Acis und Galatea, Admeto, Orlando and Samson with the NDR-Chor and Festspiel Orchester Göttingen conducted by Nicholas McGegan, for Carus.

Musica Alta Ripa conducted by Bernward Lohr delivers a decent, though not overly inspired, performance of the orchestral pieces and aria accompaniments. The recording could have had a richer basso continuo sound with a separate microphone for the chitarrone and harp, which are barely audible with two harpsichords playing. This makes the arias with basso continuo sound somewhat unvaried and lacking in nuance. Also, the orchestra could have been a bit larger - or more competently recorded - than 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, since the orchestral accompaniment sounds a bit thin. This is not contrary to our knowledge regarding the size of Italian opera orchestras at the time, but larger orchestras were used when occasion demanded, and in our day of plenty, a larger orchestra sound would have been nice. Some extra bass boost and an acoustic setting helps a lot when listening to the recording. The winds are all excellent and provide a nice contrast. Overall, Lohr sets nice tempi and maintains a good ensemble between soloists and orchestra.

Again, this is a live recording - apparently done in one take based on the liner notes - so some hiccups can be expected. I would rather have bought and heard this Steffani opera than it not having been recorded. Let's hope that more of his music gets recorded with more time to spare with better recording technology and some better singers in the future.

I give this recording 4 stars primarily due to the quality of the music written by Steffani. Its performance doesn't deserve more than 3.

A synopsis of stylistic influences on Steffani and his influence on others can be found under "Comments."
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Generous" is an Understatement! 11 Feb. 2013
By Gio - Published on
It used to be axiomatic, among Post-Romantic musicologists, that "There are no lost masterpieces." The Early Music movement has long since put that nonsense to rest; "lost is lost," of course, but of forgotten or misplaced masterpieces there are as many as your ears can identify. Let me lay out my cards and declare that Steffani's "Orlando generoso" is indeed an almost-lost masterpiece, a seminal work in the history of opera even if the seed has taken 300 years to sprout.

What's "generous" about Orlando this time? The doughty crusader hero of Ariosto's epic goes bonkers from Love, as he does in so many operas of the 17th and 18th Centuries, but here he comes to his senses just in time to assure Medoro and Angelika, Ruggiero and Bradamante of eternal bliss without fear of his Fury. The libretto by Ortensio Mauro wanders farther from Ariosto's narrative than most -- as far as Cathay in fact -- but features the usual marvels of wizardry and mistaken identities. There's nothing comical, however, in the libretto or in the music. It's a depiction of hallucinatory passion and obsession, a "psychological" portrayal that plumbs the madness of the iconic hero Orlando in total seriousness. If this opera is ever fully staged for a modern audience, I hope it won't be "camp" or coy. The music is too fine to be undercut by silliness.

And it's the music that matters. Orlando Generoso premiered in Hannover in 1691, well before the first operas by Vivaldi or Handel but well after the last of Lully. The French influence on the musical idiom of Agostino Steffani is obvious but not paramount; there's more of Monteverdi and Cavalli than of Lully in this music, in the frequent ritornelli in triple time, in the use of the ciaconna as the Leitmotif of passion, and in the fluidity with which 'seconda prattica' recitativo merges with arioso and aria. And if you know the 17th C masque repertoire, you may hear similarities to Purcell. The formulae of later Baroque opera, its recitativo secco and its da capo arias, hadn't yet rigidified in Steffani. Instead there's a wonderful freedom of invention and improvisation. Quite different musical structures emerge in each of the three acts of Orlando generoso, the first act propelled by quick scene changes and expositions of character in Cavalli-like recitations and brief arias; the second act dominated by extended duets; and the third act focused on two arioso "monologues" sung by Orlando, each monologue a miniature cantata in itself. The double duet that opens the second act, lasting almost 15 minutes, is surely one of the most beautiful scenes in all of early opera, a gorgeously languid melody suspended over a "walking" basso continuo of bassoon and cello. There's nothing predictable about the musical development of this opera; it's Steffani's inventiveness that qualifies as "generous" here.

The ensemble Musica Ripa has three roles in this opera, as continuo, as obbligato, and as "dance band" for the instrumental music that concludes each act. It's an ample ensemble - two recorders, two oboes, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, chitarrone, harp, chamber organ, and harpsichord - with the bassoon and the cello having the "best times of their lives" both as continuo and obbligato. The continuo is dazzlingly varied throughout, always matching the affect of the recitativo or arioso with evanescent figurations. There are moments of chromaticism in this opera that hark back to the madrigalism of D'India and Rossi, but then there are florid passages in the arias that "hark forward" to Handel and Hasse. Truly, it's a wonderful moment in the evolution of the opera which we hear in Steffani, the junction of 17th and 18th Century genres.

Two sopranos, four countertenors, and a bass make up the cast, with Kai Wessel singing the unusually demanding role of Orlando. The sopranos are Roberta Invernizzi as Angelica and Susanne Rydén as Bradamante. Jörg Waschinski sings the high tessitura role of Medoro and Franz Vitzthum takes on the alto role of Ruggiero. Given the quick succession of utterances in the recitativos and in the duets, it's a big plus that all of their voices are fairly distinctive in timbre. One of the previous reviewers of this performance has declared that several of the singers are "just not very good." Well, his ears must be finer than mine. I'd say they're all consistently good and at times, especially in the duets, magnificent.

This was a live recording. The sound quality could be better; a little more resonance and a clearer acoustic image of the secondary continuo instruments would indeed be desirable. But the whole generous genius of the music makes such minor reservations insignificant. Do this! As soon as you've heard this recording - a week from today at the latest and you won't be sorry - write to your local opera company manager and demand that he/she schedule "Orlando generoso" in an upcoming season. It's an almost-forgotten masterpiece.
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful work by lesser know composer 4 July 2016
By PDXbibliophile - Published on
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This was my first exposure to Steffani and it was everything and more others have said about this opera. He was a very gifted composer with distinct style (between Caldara and Handel) with great instrumentation and vocals and very creative flourishes! Sad many of his works are not available in critical editions so we may have to wait years before they are performed or recorded. I highly recommend this recording to anyone interested in Baroque opera. It does not disappoint!
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 18 July 2015
By Sensor2 - Published on
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