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FALVETTI. Diluvio Universale. Capella Mediterranea/Alarcon
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What image is more powerful than the Great Flood for a composer from a city ravaged by earthquakes and tidal waves? In 1682, this was the theme that inspired Messina resident Michelangelo Falvetti to write his oratorio Il Diluvio Universale. The subject is splendidly suited to dramatic treatment, and librettist Vincenzo Giattini and Falvetti take full advantage of this throughout the piece. Leonardo García Alarcón is regarded as one of the key artists of the new generation of conductors specializing in Baroque music. In 2005 he founded Cappella Mediterranea, which he directs here.
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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 Schofrin. 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!
Messina, Sicily, was rather well placed to appreciate volcanism as both a builder and a destroyer, with Mount Etna lowering over it. Messina was a city with some pretenses to grandeur and to culture in the 17th Century, certainly in comparison to its perennial rival Palermo. Messina had a musically busy Cathedral with a paid orchestra of four violins, four violas, a trombone, an archlute, and four organists, along with a chorus of unknown numbers. It would have been likely enough that other instruments and players were available for important occasions, but the manuscript for Michelangelo Falvetti's "Il Dilivio Universale" merely identifies it as a "dialogue for five voices and five instruments".
I'd be very surprised if the first performance of this "dialogue" in Messina in 1682 sounded much like this performance by Cappella Mediterranea of 18 instrumentalists, the Choeur de Chambre de Namur of 20 voices, six more vocal soloists, and Iranian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani! On the other hand, I'd probably be very disappointed if it didn't.
There were other composers of the baroque era who "painted" cataclysmic events in music, with thunderous dissonant chords, bizarre voice leadings, sudden changes of tempo, sudden silences, wind-machines offstage, and other such 'sound effects'. Jean-Fery Rebel's "Les Elements" comes to mind. This 'extended' interpretation of "Il Diluvio Universale" probably stretches any notion of authenticity a tad too far. For once, let's just ignore that indiscretion. This would be a rousing, rambunctious, highly original composition even in a severely scholarly performance by minimal forces. There's enough 'cake' in the music to justify the 'frosting'.
If I'd been invited to prepare a concert for the just-adjourned UN Conference of Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, I would gleefully have conducted "Il Diluvio Universale", even though Jehovah's rainbow-promise never again to afflict humankind with catastrophically rising waters is beginning to sound hollow.
The quite unknown composer,Falvetti, hails from Messina, late 17th c. Great energy and rhythm both in the composition and in the direction by the conductor, excellent soloists and choir. I had found at first a slight kinship with Monteverdi, but clearly he wasn't the composer, this is much more southern, Mediterranean.