Released on Decca Classics: 13 October 2014
In her latest Decca release, best-selling mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli celebrates the little-known flowering of opera in 18th-century St Petersburg under the enlightened rule of three exceptional women. The empresses (tsaritsas) Anna Ioannovna (1730–40), Elizaveta Petrovna (Elizabeth, 1741–62) and Catherine II (better known as Catherine the Great, 1762–96) looked to Europe to enrich the cultural life of their country, and engaged some of Italy’s leading composers to bring the latest music to the Russian court. These three powerful and headstrong women proved to be politically forward-looking and musically adventurous – as Cecilia Bartoli reveals.
Peter the Great, tsar and later emperor of Russia until his death in 1725, was the nation’s first great moderniser, dragging his vast country, with its enormous peasant population – devout and conservative – towards a strong Westernised model. It was his niece, Anna, who took up Peter’s mantle and brought culture to her court on a grand scale, importing Italian and German musicians and, with them, opera, comic opera and ballet.
Having seized power in a bloodless coup from Anna’s named heir – her infant great-nephew Ivan – Elizabeth (Peter the Great’s daughter by his second wife) looked to France for an example of court life. A great admirer of French theatre, she also nurtured music with great passion. She sang in her private chapel choir, encouraged secular music and was responsible for the first opera sung in Russian.
Elizabeth’s immediate successor was her nephew Peter, but he soon met an untimely death – his wife, Catherine, may have played a part in this. Whatever the truth of the matter, for the next 34 years, Catherine the Great forged ahead with the work of her forbears, turning the Russian Empire into a genuine world power. Though not musical herself (as a young girl, she had built a slide out of a clavichord!), she continued to bring internationally renowned musicians to St Petersburg. She even wrote the libretti for some operas, while the first public opera houses were also established during her reign. (Catherine’s supposed fascination with erotica – probably totally apocryphal – is also explored in the album’s lavishly produced booklet!).
‘Cecilia Bartoli – St Petersburg’ not only celebrates three great Russian rulers, but also turns the spotlight on their court composers: Francesco Araia (1735–59), Hermann Friedrich Raupach (1759–61), Vincenzo Manfredini (1761–63) and Domenico Cimarosa (1787–91).
Naples-born Francesco Araia was the first composer to have an opera performed in Russia (La forza dell’amore e dell’odio at the Winter Palace in 1736); he also composed the first opera to a Russian libretto (Tsefal i Prokris, premiered in 1755). Cecilia sings two arias by Araia, including one from the ground-breaking La forza dell’amore e deltoid.
Araia was succeeded by the German-born harpsichordist and composer Hermann Friedrich Raupach. Raupach, who served his empress for only two years, is one of this recording’s real discoveries, a composer of Classical poise and a truly engaging musical voice. Sadly, his surviving oeuvre is far from substantial. This album showcases two arias from his Russian opera Altsesta – Cecilia’s first recordings in the Russian language!
The youthful Vincenzo Manfredini, whose opera Carlo Magno features three times here – including a spirited chorus that closes the recording – held his job for less than two years. (Being appointed by Catherine’s short-lived predecessor Peter did not do him any professional favours!) Nonetheless, he was a composer of great talent and, once again, owes his long-overdue recognition to Cecilia Bartoli’s advocacy.
A real curiosity on the album is the Prologue to Johann Adolf Hasse’s La clemenza di Tito (which predates Mozart’s by nearly 60 years), written especially for a performance staged to mark the coronation of the tsaritsa Elizabeth in 1742. It was composed by Domenico Dall’Oglio (probably a pupil of Vivaldi and Tartini) and fellow composer and violinist Luigi Madonis.
Domenico Cimarosa, perhaps the best known of these composers today, spent four years at the St Petersburg court before moving to Vienna and transferring his allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Catherine’s interest may have switched to French literature and theatre, but Cimarosa worked hard and produced a constant stream of high-class music. The aria included here, from La vergine del sole – complete with a ravishing clarinet solo – proves that Catherine’s loss was our gain.
Housed in St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre library, the Italian Opera Collection of the eighteenth century, a uniquely valuable archive, has been opened up to Cecilia Bartoli and I Barocchisti for this project; together they explore music lost for over 200 years. The works on this recording represent the core of an extraordinarily rich collection that also comprises the original score of Verdi’s La forza del destino (premiered in St Petersburg in 1862). The Mariinsky’s artistic director, conductor Valery Gergiev, has expressed his delight in their rediscovery: ‘It fills me with pride to have Cecilia breathe new life into these historic treasures from our Mariinsky Archive and to inspire the world with this uniquely beautiful music.’
‘Cecilia Bartoli – St Petersburg’ finds the mezzo reunited with I Barocchisti and Diego Fasolis, with whom on two previous albums she has explored the music of Agostino Steffani (‘Cecilia Bartoli is to be both congratulated and thanked for this project, which appears to be very much a personal labour of love. With spirited accompaniment from the ever-vigorous I Barocchisti … it is hard to know what more one could ask for.’ Gramophone on Mission)
Cecilia Bartoli, an exclusive Decca Classics artist, is Universal Music’s best-selling ‘core’ artist with sales to date in excess of 10 million units. Having spent over 100 weeks in total in the international pop charts, she has also won numerous classical awards including five Grammys (USA), ten ECHO Awards, one Bambi (Germany), six Gramophone Awards, two Classical Brit Awards (UK) and a Victoire de la Musique (France).