You’d be excused never to have heard of Antonio Caldara (1670?-1736). In spite of being championed in the past decade by artists as eminent as Anna Bonitatibus, Max-Emanuel Cencic and Cecilia Bartoli, the renaissance of this Venetian composer’s music has been rather elusive. It appears modest compared with the renewed interest for contemporaries such as Hasse or Porpora. Arias, cherry-picked from his operas, appear both in albums and concert halls. But even looking into Bachtrack’s years of music events data, you’ll be hard-pushed to find a performance of one of his works in full. Last Saturday Matinee’s performance at the Concertgebouw was therefore a rare opportunity, rendered extra special by the buoyant playing of La Cetra Baroque Orchestra and the commitment of a very fine team of vocal soloists. Whether such an enjoyable performance will suffice to elevate Caldara out of oblivion is, however, doubtful.

Andrea Marcon © Marco Borggreve
Andrea Marcon
© Marco Borggreve

The problem lies entirely with the work itself. La concordia de' pianeti (The harmony of the planets) was composed in 1723, seven years into Caldara’s appointment as Vize-Kapellmeister at the Imperial Court in Vienna, to celebrate the name day of Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI  (that’s Marie-Antoinette’s grandmother to you and me). It basically consists of a succession of 15 arias sung by seven Roman gods, allegorical figures traditionally associated with the said planets, praising the empress’ beauty, wisdom and virtue. The libretto is so obsequious it would make a North Korean propaganda agency blush. It is a totally static affair with no dramatic development and hardly a hint of characterisation. That said, each of these 15 arias is a gem of a bravura piece and there is plenty to enjoy for fanatics of ornamentation.

To sing this fiendishly virtuosic music, written for some of the best singers of the time, Andrea Marcon gathered a seasoned cast of specialists. The line-up included three countertenors with contrasting timbres. Australian countertenor David Hansen was the solar Apollo. His diction tends to be blurry but his high-lying instrument is undeniably impressive and the brash confidence with which he darted into ringing high notes earned him loud cheers from the public. With his tightly emitted sound, Christophe Dumaux was more elegant but felt somewhat restrained in comparison. Admittedly, Caldara’s righteous Jupiter is, in terms of dramatic intensity, far remote from the roles of villains the French singer excels in. As Mars, Spanish countertenor Carlos Mena gave a very stylish performance, ornamenting his da capos with exquisite taste. Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro lent his appealing warm tenor to Mercury. With her impeccable way with words, soprano Verónica Cangemi was a very articulate lunar goddess Diana. We were treated to superb singing from Luca Tittoto, whose bronzed-coloured bass allied both heft and flexibility as Saturn, and from Delphine Galou who lent her seductively dark-hued timbre to Venus, camped on stage with much tongue-in-the-cheek attitude.

Conducting from behind the harpsichord, Marcon led the musicians of La Cetra Baroque Orchestra in a buoyant yet always crisp reading of the score. La concordia’s orchestral music is thankfully far more rewarding than the libretto. It calls for a relatively large number of instruments by Baroque standards and its richness brings much needed variety. The springy overture was punctuated by the sound of timpani and trumpets. Trumpets also suitably accompanied Mars' second aria, while Jupiter sang to the sound of oboes. One of Venus arias is solely accompanied by lute and cello. I’ll very eagerly listen to these accomplished musicians again next season in L’Olimpiade. Not Caldara’s though... but Vivaldi’s.