William Christie / Les Arts Florissants

Stefano Landi: Il Sant' Alessio

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Stefano Landi, who was Monteverdi's junior by about 20 years, was active in Rome, whereas Monteverdi was based in Venice. Landi spent two formative years in Venice, though, and absorbed the progressive musical ideas of Monteverdi and other seconda prattica composers. That contact would explain why Il Sant'Alessio (1632) sounds like a Monteverdi opera. Its expressive recitatives, melodically gratifying set pieces, mixture of serious and comic elements, and the complex psychology of its characters make it a piece that should appeal to opera fans who love L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Il Sant'Alessio was the first opera based on historical events, the life and death of a fifth century saint, rather than on mythology. (It doesn't skirt the need early opera audiences seemed to have had to include supernatural or allegorical characters, but in this case they are the Devil and Religion.) It also has the distinction of being the earliest surviving opera to have a truly great comic scene; the duet of the Pages Curtio and Martio, "Poca voglia di far bene," shows Landi to be a master of expressing humor in music. Other musical highlights include Alessio's final aria; the trio of Alessio's father, mother, and wife mourning his death; and the radiant final scene. William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in a splendid performance that's notable for its theatrical pacing and impassioned musicality. The soloists are consistently excellent, singing with pure tone, agility, and breathtaking dramatic intensity. Among the fine cast, soprano Patricia Petibon as the Saint, soprano Maryseult Wieczorek as Roma and Religion, and bass Clive Bayley as the Devil deserve special recognition. The recording doesn't create a strong sense of presence, but it's clear and clean, with good balance.