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Rediscovered Opera by Terradellas

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 28, 2011.

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D. Terradellas, Sesostri, re d'Egitto, Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara,
J. B. Otero

(released on September 13, 2011)
RCOC Records 1102.3 | 65'20"
Domènec Terradellas (1713-51) was a Spanish composer who left his Barcelona home to make his fortune in Italy, first as a student at the Conservatory in Naples and then for a short tenure at the church of San Giacomo e San Ildefonso degli Spagnoli in Rome. He had a few operas performed in Rome (as well as other cities, including Naples, Florence, and London), although evidence of them and their musical sources is scarce. The Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara has released this premiere recording of one of those operas, his last, Sesostri, re d’Egitto, performed at the Teatro Alibert o delle dame in Rome in 1751, the year of the composer’s death. It received one other known performance, back in the composer’s native Barcelona, at the Teatre de la Santa Creu, in 1754.

The libretto, written by Apostolo Zeno and adapted by Pietro Pariati, is as complicated a story as one expects of an 18th-century Neapolitan opera. It concerns the backstabbing politics of the royal succession in Egypt, following the assassination of Pharaoh Aprio and his five sons by their prime minister, Amasi. The youngest son, Sesostri, is saved by a faithful noble, Fanete, who raises the boy in secret while continuing to serve Amasi, who has become Pharaoh.

When the opera begins, Fanete persuades Sesostri to kill Amasi’s illegitimate son, Osiri, and then assume his identity -- the motive is revenge, and so accordingly Fanete reveals to Sesostri his true parentage. Amasi, frustrated in his plan to wed Nitocri, the widow of the murdered pharaoh, instead sets his sights on Artenice, Fanete’s daughter, with whom Sesostri has fallen in love. Orgonte, Fanete’s servant, then informs Fanete that Osiri’s guardian has not been killed, as previously thought, and that they are in danger of the plot against Amasi becoming known. In an attempt to disguise the deception and prevent it being discovered, Fanete tells Artenice that the young man she is in love with is actually Osiri.

If you are lost already, take heart: this is only the end of the first act, and the plot does not become any clearer. All of these mistaken identities set up the dramatic crises of the story, leading Nitocri to agree to marry Amasi, if he vows to kill the man she believes to be Osiri, who is actually her youngest son. Amasi saves his fictional son from Nitocri’s plot to kill him, and orders the doppelgänger Osiri to execute her. And so on…. In the end, thanks to many dramatic near-escapes, no one is executed, and the Egyptian people rise up, deposing Amasi and restoring Sesostri to the throne. Fortunately, comprehension of the plot is not a prerequisite to enjoy the lovely music.

Although almost completely forgotten today, Terradellas was considered by his peers to be one of the best composers of the Neapolitan style, noted by both Charles Burney and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, as rightfully belonging in the company of Porpora, Hasse, Galuppi, and Jommelli. He wrote the type of Italian opera that was critical to the formation of the young Mozart’s ears. One of the places I listened to this recording was sitting at the desk in my office, and many colleagues poked their heads in to find out what it was, a sure sign that the style has broad appeal. None of them, of course, had ever heard of Terradellas.

Sesostri is the middle installment of a Terradellas trilogy planned by RCOC director, Juan Bautista Otero: Artaserse was released in 2009, with Merope scheduled as the third volume. Otero leads a small, lithe ensemble of strings, brass, winds, and percussion, with continuo harmonization realized with expert flexibility on harpsichord, with occasional use of chamber organ. The cast is generally fine, led by tenor Kenneth Tarver in a heroic performance as the villainous Amasi. As his mentor, Fanete, Tom Randle has a more baritone-like sound, which helps to balance out this decidedly treble-heavy opera, with the rest of the roles -- some of which were probably intended for castrati -- given to sopranos.

The richest female sounds come from Raffaella Milanesi, as the servant Orgonte, and the viscous, full-bodied Nitocri of Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Lighter soprano Sunhae Im, the only singer who was also featured on the earlier recording of Artaserse, is a little acidic and nervous as Sesostri, turning shrill at the top, although this is at least partially due to overly close miking of all the singers, placing the intensity of Tarver’s voice at loud moments, for example, at a level near discomfort in close listening.

Ditte Andersen, as the perpetually confused Artenice, has an intense and focused tone in slow passages, like the middle section of the gorgeous show-stopping aria ‘Se si trova in lacci stretto’, which concludes the first act. When the tempo speeds up in the outer sections, however, a nervous edge creeps in to her vibrato, making the tone squeeze and strain flat at the top of her voice. More of the background of the room in the mix might have fixed some of these issues with the singers, but this is still highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of opera before Mozart.

The music is worth discovering, and the high cost of this three-disc set on the RCOC’s own label (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) includes an extensive booklet containing an essay about Terradellas by Otero, and full texts and translations in Catalan, Italian and English.

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