Action-packed and luxurious.
Despite the title of this piece, this is not 'churchy' music. It has everything that good drama has, and if it were a book it would be unputdownable. Caldara gives us action, showing himself to be every bit as much dramatist as composer. The story and the pace never flag for a minute. René Jacobs moves it along at a cracking pace and makes it a memorable event. It must have been wonderful to take part.
Amor Celeste and Amor Terreno are battling for the heart and soul of Maddalena. It opens with Fink's stunning Amor Terreno, seductive enough to capture the heart of a stone. In trying to win Maddalena, her ornamentations paint vivid pictures of "drunk with pleasure". Then, in charges Scholl's Amor Celeste, powerful and confident of winning the battle hands down - but then so is Fink's Amor Terreno, full of strength and depth. You can't take sides at their declaration of war, the duet Alle vittorie, because both are convincing - and their voices blend perfectly. The sheer strength of Scholl's voice in this piece brushes aside the familiar accusations of "too ethereal".
Their awesome battle duets punctuate the unfolding drama as Maddalena agonises - in dialogue with her sister - over her choices, and the orchestra supports them with real fire. The chest-thumping opening provided by Chiara Banchini's string band in the duet La mia virtude/Il senso è un nemico makes an impact that would lift you off your seat in a concert hall (if only). When Amor Terreno is finally defeated, the colours of her fury are so vivid you can taste it, and it's clear that the only destiny for such rage is Hell. Amor Celeste's victory-celebration Su, lieti festeggiate has the earthy gusto of mens' peasant dances. A rather earthy sound for Amor Celeste at this point... even the metaphysical Mr Scholl sounds as though he could stomp his feet.
This recording made Maria Cristina Kiehr a star, and she has never sounded better than as Maddalena. Her clear voice expresses longing, indecision, passion and tranquillity with equal facility, and is never less than completely beautiful. Her expressions, as Maddalena changes course, develop brilliantly. Her cry of "Signor, pietate!" is the pivot of the whole thing - high drama indeed.
All the singers are now stars, and every performance is stunning. Un-improvable.
So many of the tunes are completely original and whistle-able, even dance-able, that I am surprised they are not better known. They certainly stick in the memory, if only because the repeat button on the CD player gets a lot of use. This composition is a masterpiece and the 2-CD set a great Baroque luxury.
The very last note is a complete surprise -- pure genius from Caldara.