Northern Europe has always had a squeamish fascination with art of the Italian Baroque. Much ink has been spilt on Caravaggio’s religious paintings and Bernini’s sexy saint sculptures can still shock, but very little attention has been given to religious music of the period. William Christie and his period ensemble Les Arts Florissants look set to change that with their current tour of Stefano Landi’s sacred opera Il Sant’ Alessio.
Written around 1629 at the height of Counter-Reformation fervour, this rarely performed work is unquestionably Catholic: Landi was a priest, his patrons were a family of cardinals, his librettist was the future Pope Clement IX, and the opera was written for a Jesuit college in Rome. It is a complex and, in many ways, difficult piece. Long and intense stretches of arioso present moments of exquisite and penetrating beauty but fully developed arias’ are few and far between. This structure is interspersed with rhythmical chorus sections (sung by the LAF chorus and La Matrise de Caen children’s choir) that ring with an almost frightening power.
Having made a historic recording of Il Sant’ Alessio back in 1996, Christie and LAF have this year collaborated with the theatre director Benjamin Lazar for an ambitious staged project. At first glance the 5th century narrative looks rather unpromising: Sant Alessio spurns his wealthy family to pursue a life of contemplation under his father’s staircase and after resisting the devil, quietly dies and ascends to Heaven. The story involves no flashy miracles, no gory martyrdom, and the protagonist dies two thirds of the way through. And yet Lazar conveys a sense of poignancy and deep emotion with Baroque gesture and minimal costumes (significantly reduced at the Barbican).
Fronting the cast as Alessio, is the fast rising star Philippe Jaroussky. Often described as a soprano, Jaroussky is clear-voiced and light-footed, with a remarkably elastic upper register, and he compliments this with a moving and fragile characterisation of Alessio. Comic relief is provided by two sprites, Curtio and Martio, (Damien Guillon and Jos Lemos, respectively) that shriek and prance amongst the orchestra, at one point whipping the music into a fast-paced dance. Max Emanuel Cencic sings elegantly as Alessio’s rejected wife, and Luigi de Donato makes a magnificent Demonio, who, like all the best literary Satans, threatens to upstage his saintly co-star.
Directed by the charismatic Christie, who alternates between harpsichord, chamber organ and an unearthly-sounding regale, the small ensemble produce an astonishing range of textures. Alessio’s final lament is accompanied by a gentle plucking of strings, lively tambourines denote the Devil’s chorus, and the keyboard continuo is otherwise coupled with a rich, almost synthetic hum of theorbo, cello, viola da gamba and lyrone. Il Sant’ Alessio might be strange and unsettling, but this extraordinary all-male (nine counter-tenors must be breaking some record) production highlights Landi’s unsung genius.
Following the Barbican performance, the tour continues to New York, Paris, Nancy and Luxembourg.
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