Roman composer Alessandro Stradella is remembered by most listeners, if at all, as a scandalous trivia item: he was knifed to death by hit men in Genoa in 1682 after sleeping with one too many married aristocratic women. From the perspective of the eighteenth century, however, his legacy was extremely important. The pioneering music writer Charles Burney owned copies of his works, which were being studied as late as 1800. This intense oratorio on the life of John the Baptist makes it easy to see why. It does not sound like any other religious work of the Baroque, and its treatment of the orchestra had major implications for the development of the Italian Baroque instrumental tradition. Stradella divided the orchestra into what would later be called ripieno and concertino -- a larger orchestral group and a small group of solo strings. The young Arcangelo Corelli, who may have played in the orchestra when the work was premiered, took careful note. The payoff for the listener is that Stradella uses his flexible orchestration effectively in the service of one of the Bible's most lowdown stories, that of the request of Salome for the head of John the Baptist, which is duly delivered to her on a platter. Short arias are accompanied by a perfectly matched, sharp, busy accompaniment from small groups of strings; they are embedded in a larger architecture of full-orchestra passages, with a few choruses of John's disciples. In contrast to most of the familiar oratorios, the role of the chorus is small; the work is above all dramatic, although unstaged. It deserves an honored place in the parade of operatic depictions of Salome, coming down to Richard Strauss and beyond. A standout singer on this recording is countertenor Roberto Balconi in the role of John, whose calm lines are set in vivid contrast to the busier, disturbed music of
Unfortunately, this unfamiliar work is poorly presented. Despite acres of white space, no translation of the libretto is given, into any language. The story is a familiar one, with few enough characters that one can follow the action with a smattering of Romance language familiarity, but given the stress liner note writer Massimiliano del Vita lays on the detail and originality of the work's libretto by one Abbott Ansaldi, the listener is left wishing for more. To add insult to injury, the Italian text has no CD track divisions, only meaningless line numbers. Potential buyers may wish to compare samples from this disc with the other available performance, by Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski, which includes full translations.