Concerto Romano gave the modern day premiere of Il San Vito by Bernardo Pasquini last Wednesday afternoon at Emmanuel Church in Boston under the umbrella of the Boston Early Music Festival. Renowned in his day as a virtuoso keyboard player, Pasquini (1637-1710) was the most important Italian composer of keyboard music between Frescobaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, and was also regarded as the leading dramatic composer in Rome until he was overshadowed by Alessandro Scarlatti. Yet little of his music was published in his own lifetime, and his operas, oratorios, and cantatas are still not well known.
Oratorios originally took their name from the beautifully decorated halls where they were first performed. By the later 17th century, however, they were often heard in aristocratic palaces or in private chapels. In Rome, where theatrical spectacle was often frowned upon, oratorios on sacred subjects often took on the epic and romantic appeal of opera. Pasquini’s oratorio tells the legendary story of Vitus, who was taken as a boy to Rome to drive out a demon that had taken possession of a son of the Emperor Diocletian. But because he remained steadfast in the Christian faith, he was nevertheless condemned to death along with Modestus, his tutor, and his tutor’s wife, Crescentia. To suit the tastes of the Roman aristocracy for romantic drama, the librettist, abbot Domenico Filippo Contini, did not hesitate to modify the traditional story. Instead of the son of the emperor, it is his daughter, Valeria, whom Vitus cures of madness. She promptly falls in love with him, offering her love in exchange for his faith, but he refuses and dies a martyr.
Under Alessandro Quarta,the full instrumental ensemble—Paolo Perrone and Gabriele Politi, violins; Pietro Meldolesi, viola; Rebeca Ferri, cello; Matteo Coticoni, double bass; Giovanni Battista Graziadio, bassoon; Francesco Tomasi,archlute; Stefano Demicheli, harpsichord; Andrea Buccarella, organ—opened the oratorio with a Sinfonia in two sections, the first in slow, duple time, the second in fast triple time. A recitative in flexible, expressive style began the dialogue between Vitus and Diocletian. A young boy according to the legend, Vitus was cast as a soprano (Paola Valentina Molinari), her clear, bright sonority a perfect foil for baritone Mauro Borgioni’s darkly penetrating response. Tenor Luca Cervoni sang the tutor Modestus. His wife, Crescentia, who had been nurse to Vitus, was a cross-dressing male alto, Alberto Miguélez Ruoco; male singers were frequently cast at nurses in 17th-century operas.
Many of the arias and arioso-recitatives had only continuo accompaniment, but instrumental color was used for emotional or dramatic effect in several instances. Begging Vitus to heal his daughter, Diocletian described the infernal spirits that tormented her to the growling accompaniment of bassoon, cello, and double bass. Virtuosic roulades demonstrated his power and riches. The dramatic tension of Valeria’s crazy laughter in “Quanto mi fai pur ridere” (You make me laugh so much) was enhanced by dotted rhythms in the violins. In calling on Jesus for assistance— “Mio Giesù, che dagl’alti tuoi giri” (My Jesus, you who from your high throne) —Molinari skillfully used vibrato as a special form of vocal ornament to express emotional intensity. The well-matched trio of Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia concluded the first half in a densely contrapuntal declaration of steadfast courage. In the second part, Valeria (Sonia Tedla Chebreab), no longer mad, pleaded with her father to spare Vitus’s life. His response, “Gran portento!” (Oh,great wonder!), accompanied by continuo and strings, perfectly expressed his conflicting emotions of rage and mercy in a da capo aria that shifted from one mood to the other. The core of the second part was contained in a long exchange between Vitus and Valeria, first in two strophic arias, then in a continuo aria in a line-by-line dialogue that ended with Valeria realizing she had lost the battle to seduce Vitus. The revenge arias of the spurned lover (Valeria) and the rejected Diocletian contrasted with the calm resignation of the three martyrs, expressed first in a trio with strings, then by Vitus alone in a final joyous triple-meter dance of acceptance.
Hearing this work, with its strongly Italianate tinge, in a performance by an Italian ensemble naturally invited comparison with the performance, heard the night before, by the French group Ensemble Correspondances of roughly contemporaneous sacred music intended for a similar audience in France. It is a uniquely enjoyable feature of the Boston Early Music Festival that it can provide the context for such contrasts of style and technique.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.