Perhaps few even relatively deep listeners of opera know that the difference between Tuscan Baroque composer Antonio Cesti (1623-1669) and vintage Israeli adult film actress Chesty Morgan except that his last name and her first are pronounced exactly the same way. However, Cesti's fortunes are getting a bump up in terms of profile with Baroque opera company Auser Musici's production of one of Cesti's nine surviving operas, Le disgrazie d'Amore, self-described as a "moralizing comic opera in three acts." First staged in February 1667 in Vienna, it is likely that this work hasn't been heard since, as it was written just before the opera soon to be Cesti's most celebrated, Il Pomo d'oro, which became the most avidly repeated of Cesti's operas. Cesti would not long enjoy such success, as he died in Florence on October 14, 1669, under mysterious circumstances in what some sources suggest might have been other than natural causes.
Auser Musici is an expert ensemble at interpreting Baroque opera, which is an entirely different animal from what Steve Reich once called "Opera with a capital 'O'." The stories often involve characters from Greek and Roman mythology, whose stories and situations were well known to the nobles for whom such operas were written to entertain. The band is typically small, and singing is of an entirely different kind, requiring special ornaments, complicated passage work and other techniques for the voice making the job of putting over a performance particularly hard. Their new Hyperion set, Le disgrazie d'Amour, is devoted to a comic opera by a composer even devotees of Baroque opera may not be acquainted with, and the conventional approach in terms of publicizing such a recording would be to let the classical critics take hold of it and to hope that they pick up the ball and carry it in for a touchdown. On the contrary, Auser Musici has decided not to take this situation sitting down. They are in the process of adding -- bit by ten minute bit -- the entire three-hours-long opera to their YouTube channel. This is a live performance of the work, and the sound on the video is no better than what one would expect from a live recording from a video camera. But that's not the point. This is an opportunity for a prospective listener to connect with the production itself before parting with that hard-earned cash to spring for the 2-CD set.
And it's quite an experience. In the first part you can see the little Baroque orchestra with its odd looking period instruments placed in a rectangle surrounded by a staircase; soprano Cristiana Arcari emerges as Cupid, bow in hand, singing the prologue to the opera as she makes her way through the audience. The scene ends as the curtain draws back to reveal Venus and Vulcan in the latter's smoky cave; if one ventures into the next chapter a domestic squabble arises among the couple, mostly about their rather rustic accommodations.
There are no subtitles to the performance, but if one is having a hard time following the story a full summary is posted to the page for the disc at Hyperion Records' website. It is an ingenious and effective bit of cross-merchandising for the digital age. Naturally if one likes the music they'll want the disc, and even if you don't go for the whole meal this is a nice option for experiencing a little bit of what Baroque Opera is all about.