Here is an extraordinary masterpiece from the deepest recesses of baroque obscurity. Michelangelo Falvetti, maestro di cappella at the cathedral of Messina, Sicily, chose one of the most momentous of all Biblical events, the Great Flood, for the subject of his oratorio-cum-drama first performed in 1682. It consists of four scenes or tableaux: In Heaven, On Earth, The Great Flood, and In Noah's Ark. The characters include Noah, his wife (not named in the Bible but called Rad in this Italian libretto), God, Death, and a few allegorical figures such as Human Nature and Divine Justice.
The work is scored for a variety of baroque instruments and voices. The rich and splendid sound of Cappella Mediterranea's period instruments is immediately evident in the arresting opening sinfonia. The drama, led by Divine Justice sung by the fine contralto of Evelyn Ramirez Muñoz, builds up splendidly over the following numbers of this first scene, culminating in an extraordinary and superbly dramatic chorus, 'Le nubi funeste' (track 9), which prepares us for the great flood as vividly as any of your favourite disaster movies. The second scene, set on earth, depicts Noah and Rad, their love and tenderness beautifully expressed in their opening duet - the first of several concerted vocal pieces throughout the work in which the composer reveals a fine gift for melody and vocal writing, some of which reminded me of the exquisite beauties of Agostino Steffani's duets. Soon God intervenes (tracks 12 and 13), in music both dramatic and beautiful here and throughout the rest of the work; the part is superbly sung by bass Matteo Bellotto, with sonorous voice and splendid diction - a real virtuoso performance.
Then comes the flood, heard gently at first in raindrop imitations from the instruments then rapidly developing into a mighty torrent accompanied by percussion and the chorus's dramatic commentary. This is a good point at which to mention the brilliant contributions of the percussionist Keyvan Chemirani to this and many other sections of the work. The figure of Death joins in the destruction, simultaneously threatening and ingratiating and sung with appropriately self-satisfied relish by countertenor Fabián Chofrin. The flood scene culminates in two magnificent choruses - the first a majestic ciacona-style piece 'E chi mi dà aita' (track 21) with startling dissonances and powerful percussion, and the second, 'Ahi che nel fin' (25), representing the climax of the disaster followed by Death's triumphant song of victory and delight. After all this vividly depicted doom and destruction the final tableau, in Noah's ark, brings relief and takes us to an altogether happier place. After another lovely duet for Rad and Noah, the chorus 'Mio core festeggia' (28) heralds a series of joyful numbers which offer true musical delight, above all in the dance-like 'Ecco l'Iride paciera' (30); as catchy a number as you'll ever hear in a Biblical drama, it's listed in the booklet as a duet but is actually sung here most delightfully by three sopranos, with the rest of the chorus joining in after a while. The work ends with a joyful and majestic chorus of which Handel would have been proud, bearing a message of peace and hope, sung with total conviction by the excellently balanced choir - a key participant in the drama throughout - and accompanied by the rich panoply of instruments.
All of this is performed with both brilliance and panache by the Cappella Mediterranea and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, under the inspired direction of Leonardo García Alarcón. The soloists are all quite splendid - in particular, in addition to those already mentioned, the lovely-voiced and wonderfully expressive soprano Mariana Flores as Rad, the fine tenor Fernando Guimarães as Noah, the sparkling Acqua of Magali Arnault and the bright-voiced innocence of soprano Caroline Weynants as Natura Humana. The recorded sound is vivid and atmospheric and the booklet with the CD version is excellent, with full text and translation, first-class notes by the director and others, and plenty of fine photos of the performers.
Alarcón's Cappella Mediterranea are a terrific early-music ensemble who have already brought us several very fine baroque CDs on the Ambronay label, my favourite until now being a superb selection of Barbara Strozzi's arias and madrigals, Strozzi: Virtuosissima Compositrice. But the present disc of 'Il diluvio universale' must be their most startling and original yet. Altogether this is an astounding work, by turns dramatic and delightful and most certainly without a single dull moment, and if you like baroque vocal music - more or less anything from Monteverdi to Handel - it's almost bound to appeal. But there's no need to take my word for it since, in addition to sampling audio tracks on Amazon, you can see and hear several more extended extracts on YouTube - just enter composer or work title. Best of all these are three 5-minute documentaries with background, interviews (in French), and extracts from rehearsals and from the group's concerts at the Ambronay, France, early music festival, where they performed Falvetti's work with great success; for these clips, enter title or composer and add 'documentary'. Then, if your French is up to it - or perhaps even if not - prepare to be hooked!