Academy of Sacred Drama revives 300-year-old oratorio with a message for now

Mon Jan 14, 2019 at 10:40 am

Jeremy Rhizor directed the Academy of Ancient Drama in Gianettini’s “La Creatione de’ Magistrati” Sunday at Corpus Christi Church.

The story of how Moses learned to delegate—coming soon to your local cineplex?

Well, maybe not.  It’s not exactly the burning bush, or the parting of the Red Sea.  But it was one of the hits of 1688 in Modena, and Giovanni Antonio Gianettini’s oratorio La Creatione de’ Magistrati also went over well Sunday afternoon at Manhattan’s Corpus Christi Church, in a fine, lyrical performance by the Academy of Sacred Drama, presented by Music Before 1800.

Which goes to show that, if the music is good enough, people will listen to anything.  And who knew to expect such good music from Signor Gianettini?  When violinist Jeremy Rhizor, the ensemble’s director, asked on Sunday for a show of hands by audience members who had previously heard of this composer, not a hand went up.

And yet Gianettini had been one of the stars of his time—organist and chorister at the great church of San Marco in Venice, hired away from there to be maestro di cappella at the court of one of the music-lovingest noblemen in Europe, Duke Francesco II of Modena.

More importantly for us in 2019, the man had a way with a tune, as the concert’s cast of three singers—portraying Moses, his wife Zipporah, and his father-in-law, the high priest Jethro—demonstrated admirably all afternoon.

A group of four silken-toned string players shared in the melodic bounty, and a continuo of organ, harp, harpsichord and theorbo wove ever-changing textures in support.

The piece they were performing—after it had sat unnoticed in the ducal library for over 300 years–sprang originally from the imagination of the Duke’s private secretary, Giovanni Battista Giardini, who wrote the libretti for a cycle of eight oratorios on the life of Moses, then distributed them to various composers to set to music.

For composer Gianettini, there were no tablets on the mountain or even a baby in a basket, but rather the episode, in Exodus 18:6-27, where father-in-law Jethro notices that Moses is on the verge of burnout from managing the Israelites’ affairs day and night, and advises him to appoint some good people to share the workload.

A side benefit, he hints in Giardini’s version, would be more time for the “casti diletti” (chaste delights) of the “Letto Genial” (marriage bed).  Even the High Priest doesn’t believe in all work and no play.

His daughter Zipporah seconds that emotion, of course, and sings affectingly of the love and mutual respect (“no tyrant is he, nor slave am I”) she shares with Moses.

For his part, the great man has a hard time letting go.  “Fate condemns this heart of mine to public life,” he sings, “and I must see it through.”

And in the middle of all these poetic meditations on love and statecraft there comes…a lecture.

No, not in the 1688 libretto—as part of the 2019 performance, at the break between the acts, author and art historian Alice Jarrard gave a lively talk on the arts and politics at the ducal court of Modena.  Call it a living program note, or a pre-concert lecture that took a wrong turn somewhere and showed up at intermission—whatever it was, it put a new frame of meaning around the work in question.

Because it seems that, in 1688, not only Moses but Audience Member No. 1—the young Duke himself—was in need of this work’s advice.  While most Baroque works of this type were written to flatter a ruler, in this case his “humble servants” the court secretary and composer were sending a more pointed message: if you want to succeed as a ruler, you’d better get your government together, and get yourself a wife.

And that, in turn, evoked situations much closer to home for Sunday’s audience.  Violinist Rhizor and lecturer Jarrard touched on it only obliquely in their remarks, but who in 2019 could hear lines like, “Reason is outdone and the Law is made by dealing, for guilty spoils of vile treasure,” and “Confound those adulterers of truth, the lips which lie and cheat,” and most presently, “The fervor of those who serve goes lukewarm, and wanes when the prize is uncertain: and merit wearies when the wait is long,” without thinking of that day’s news?

But however intriguing, these thought channels wouldn’t sustain interest in a two-and-a-half-hour performance.  It was Gianettini’s fertile imagination, and the performers’ lively response to it, that did that.

Countertenor Daniel Moody as Moses had the toughest assignment.  His starchy character had one believing that the singer himself was uptight, until his voice eased up and blossomed for a rapturous tribute to the Sun as a model of constancy for rulers (“Vera Imago”).

As Jethro, Peter Walker’s deeply polished bass-baritone embodied fatherly concern and wisdom, dropping at times to those subterranean low notes that denote gravitas and authority, à la Mozart’s Sarastro.  Although his role started out rather plain and simple, his later aria denouncing vanity (“Non si prezza”) sprouted the wildest one-syllable melismas of the afternoon.

The part of Zipporah was not outwardly showy in that way, but required much agility to sing prettily, as soprano Sarah MacKimmie Tomlin consistently did, no matter what manner of runs and leaps the composer threw at her (“Quanto è caro”).  Her on-the-button intonation made everything sparkle.

The impeccable foursome of Rhizor and Chloe Fedor, violins; Dongmyung Ahn, viola; and Arnie Tanimoto, cello, soared and swooped together like a flock of birds in the opening Sinfonia and the ritornelli of the arias, putting a sensuous sheen on their historically-informed tone.

The continuo—Arash Noori, theorbo; Parker Ramsay, harp and organ; and Elliot Figg, harpsichord—proved an invaluable expressive partner, supporting the singers with instrumentation and tone tailored to the moment.

In fact, the whole performance seemed tailored to the present moment, as it breathed melodious life into a dusty manuscript that had waited 300 years to be so up-to-date.

Han Tol and Boreas Quartett Bremen perform music for recorders by Tye, Holborne, Dowland, Vivaldi, Boismortier, and Bach 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at Corpus Christi Church.  mb1800.org; 212-666-9266.


One Response to “Academy of Sacred Drama revives 300-year-old oratorio with a message for now”

  1. Posted Jan 16, 2019 at 12:43 pm by Frederick B Negem, Jr.

    Sublime music indeed excavated by amazing musician/musicologist/historian Jeremy Rhizor, who finds these things, resurrects them and gives us to them for the first time in centuries and for the first time ever in the West. Bravo Maestro Rhizor! More please!

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