By Christopher Browner
June 1st, Trinity Church, Manhattan
There was a palpable sense of anticipation inside Manhattan’s historic Trinity Church as audiences arrived to hear New York Baroque Incorporated’s (NYBI) premiere of a new edition of the resurrected oratorio Santa Rosalia by Italian organist and composer Bonaventura Aliotti. Originally written in 1687 for a festival celebrating Saint Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, the work survived only as a manuscript in a private collection for centuries. So NYBI’s performance, with music director Lorenzo Colitto leading an orchestra of 13, simultaneously felt like a glimpse into the past and an exciting world premiere.
Aliotti’s score seems to take inspiration from the likes of Monteverdi and Purcell, combining vivid text setting, multifaceted characters, and music of both virtuosic agility and insightful emotion. Throughout, the NYBI orchestra imbued the work with a wealth of instrumental color and conjured vivid imagery with their playing. One striking example came during a scene in which Rosalia etches her vows in stone. Here, Aliotti uses percussive string figures to depict the unmistakable sound of a chisel. Credit also must be given to keyboardist Dongsok Shin and cellist Ezra Seltzer who displayed great artistry in their handling of the continuo accompaniment for recitatives.
The oratorio tells a rather simple story. As the title character, a wealthy noblewoman in 12th-century Palermo decides to forsake her worldly station and become a pious hermit, various allegorical figures—Penitence, Ambition, and Sense—vie for influence over her choice. Each character is given ample music with which to make their case, and in the hands of the NYBI soloists, much of it was quite compelling.
As Rosalia herself, Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer deftly conveyed the character’s inner struggle. In moments of plaintive yearning, her singing became incredibly lyrical, but Zomer also delivered impassioned passages of fiery fioritura. Her rendition of the aria “Infelice, seguire non so,” in which Rosalia is crippled with indecision, kept with 17th-century stylistic conventions while also being instantly relatable to modern audiences.
Molly Netter lent a hauntingly elegant soprano to her performance as Penitence, spinning affecting phrases and skillfully using straight tone. When she returned in the second half as a glorified vision of the Virgin Mary, her singing became more exuberant while still maintaining graceful dignity.
Clad in a striking cape and golden earrings, mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney sang the role of Ambition with a rich, penetrating timbre. She excelled at delivering intricate coloratura lines, but, whenever part of an ensemble, she tended to be overpowered by fellow singers. Likewise, tenor Owen McIntosh brought a light—though bright and focused—instrument to his role as Sense. And as Lucifer himself, Dashon Burton sang with a commanding bass-baritone that contrasted nicely with his colleague’s higher voices.
NYBI should also be commended for its efforts to make this unknown work accessible for audiences. From a full, printed English translation to simple-yet-effective stage direction by Marc Verzatt, the story unfolded naturally from beginning to end. Hopefully, having had success with this presentation, Aliotti’s Santa Rosalia will no longer be an obscure footnote of musical history.
Christopher Browner is the Associate Editor at the Metropolitan Opera and served as Opera Critic for the Columbia Daily Spectator between 2012 and 2016. In addition to his writing, he has directed operas in New York and Connecticut and regularly gives guests lectures for the Columbia University Music Department.
Academy Journal Beta.1, 16-17 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND