Bejun Mehta / René Jacobs / Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin

Che Puro Ciel: The Rise of Classical Opera

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The contents of this album reflect the operatic music Mozart would have known as a teenager. One of the composers, Christoph Willibald Gluck, is known as a founder of the Classical style in opera; others, including Johann Adolf Hasse, Johann Christian Bach, and Tommaso Traetta, are known mostly to specialists, at least in the operatic field. Listeners who have heard the spectacular arias of the late Baroque popularized by Renée Fleming and others will find the pieces here less virtuosic but more dramatically satisfying, as if the composers and librettists had engaged themselves anew with the ancient Greek stories they were retelling. One might object that annotator Denis Morrier gives short shift to the most important of the librettists, Pietro Metastasio, whose writings remained popular up to Beethoven's time. But the music itself here brings some real treasures: hear the compelling dialogue between Orestes and a chorus of Furies in Traetta's Ifigenia en Tauride (track 9). In general the works by Traetta, who spent part of his career in musically remote St. Petersburg, are the biggest find here, but the entire program is intelligently assembled. You can really hear the young Mozart assimilating this genre and reaching maturity there earlier than in any of his other works, first in Mitridate, rè di Ponto (1770), and then even more so in the neglected Ascanio in Alba of the following year. It's a bit odd to hear conductor René Jacobs and the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin use a fortepiano in one of the Mozart recitatives, which would have been unlikely in 1771, but the performers get the excitement of the music. The talents of American countertenor Bejun Mehta are very effectively deployed here; he won't knock you out with scales and trills, but he's dramatically effective and has a beautiful limpid tone in the slower and warmer arias. Highly recommended for anyone curious about the sources of Mozart's style or about the investigations that are slowly remaking the performance world of the 18th century in general.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Orfeo ed Euridice
1 6:06
2 1:46
Ascanio in Alba
3 4:32
4 5:01
Antigona
5 3:17
Il trionfo di Clelia
6 4:32
Artaserse
7 1:58
8 6:45
Ifigenia in Tauride
9 7:47
Ezio
10 5:07
Ascanio in Alba
11 3:42
Antigona
12 5:00
Ezio
13 3:27
Mitridate
14 1:23
15 9:19
blue highlight denotes track pick