Alessandro Stradella may not be the first composer to come to mind when contemplating the great baroque masters of the 17th century, but he was unquestionably the most colourful.

Manuscript of <i>La Doriclea</i>
Manuscript of La Doriclea

According to reliable accounts, Stradella’s life was an irresistible composite of Caravaggio and Casanova. Constantly on the run, Stradella was not averse to scamming the Catholic Church and hoodwinking his benefactors. It seems his libido was an even greater liability than his love of legerdemain and Stradella’s regular midnight flits were invariably the result of affairs with the wives or mistresses of powerful patrons. Given the ubiquity and bargain-basement cost of paid assassins at the time, this was hardly a modus vivendi to ensure Handelian longevity.

Stradella was eventually murdered by contract killers in Genoa in 1682, having seduced a daughter of the no-nonsense Lomellini family. A portrait by Van Dyck in the Scottish National Gallery shows the po-faced Lomellinis as unlikely advocates of premarital sex or consensual abduction. Bad seduction choice.

Sir Anthony van Dyck, <i>The Lomellini Family</i> © National Galleries of Scotland
Sir Anthony van Dyck, The Lomellini Family
© National Galleries of Scotland

The reputation of Stradella, both musical and infamous, enjoyed a revival in Paris in the 1800s, especially as the composer’s scurrilous life-story titillated both demi-monde and misérables during the reign of Louis-Philippe. Louis Niedermeyer wrote a five act opera based on Stradella’s life in 1837 which was decidedly ill-omened as the leading soprano, Cornélie Falcon, lost her voice mid-performance and it never returned. Seven years later, Friedrich Von Flotow wrote a similar work about Stradella, and although it enjoyed significant international success at the time, the opera fell into oblivion after the last major staging at the Met in 1910.

Since 2013, there have been signs of another Stradella revival similar to the Vivaldi renaissance spearheaded by Alfredo Casella 1939. Just this season, La Scala staged an opera by Salvatore Sciarrino called Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo, which is subtitled Waiting for Stradella. Dramaturgical parallels with Beckett are obvious, but the point is not so much Sciarrino’s commendable composition but the fact that Stradella’s extraordinary life is the stuff movies and myths are made of.

Portrait <b>not</b> of Stradella, on a Felix Mackar edition of his <i>Air d'Église</i> © Bibliothèque de France
Portrait not of Stradella, on a Felix Mackar edition of his Air d'Église
© Bibliothèque de France

There is no verifiable image or painting of Stradella. There are no records of his birth but persuasive indications that it occurred not in Nepi (his official birthplace) but in either Vignola or Monfestino, close to Modena where his father Cavaliere Marc'antonio Stradella was Governor for Prince Boncompagni. Stradella inaccuracies abound such as a likeness held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The place of birth is wrong, the date of birth of wrong, the date of death is wrong – and the portrait isn’t even of the composer.

One of the earliest biographies of Stradella, by Pierre Bonnet-Bourdelot in 1715, is full of really sensational anecdotes about the hormonally-charged composer. Unfortunately most of them have as much credibility as Dan Brown’s supposed insights into the Roman Curia. For many years, if not centuries, these fanciful fables held considerable credibility. One famous example is the tale that after another successful seduction, Stradella made a hasty departure from Venice with maîtresse du jour in hand, or at least in carrozza, hotly pursued by assassins paid by the lady’s immensely powerful and seriously miffed admirer, Alvise Contarini. Considering the Contarinis were one of the twelve founding families of Venice, provided eight Doges and filled innumerable high offices in La Serenissima, such a rash liaison was not the smartest career move.

As Bonnet-Bourdelot’s story goes, the would be Sparafuciles tracked Stradella down at the archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome where he was rehearsing his oratorio San Giovanni Battista, but were so overwhelmed by the celestial beauty of the target’s music, they reneged on their nefarious assignment and persuaded the philandering ne’er-do-well to depart Rome post-haste. Niedermeyer’s opera has a variant where Stradella sings “Pleure, Jérusalem” in the church of Santa Mara Maggiore with such cherubic innocence that the hit-men drop their daggers and flee.

There is however archival evidence in Modena establishing that assassins acting on behalf of Alvise Contarini caused serious, but not yet mortal injuries to Stradella in Turin in 1677, and his actual murder five years later is extensively documented.

Manuscript of <i>Santa Editta</i>
Manuscript of Santa Editta

According to musicologist Carolyn Gianturco, Stradella’s impact on the development of baroque compositional styles cannot be overestimated. Starting with a profound knowledge of traditional counterpoint, Stradella was surprisingly avant-garde. He invented the concertino and concerto grosso division as well as exploring the new form of aria with ornamented da capo. His capacity for melodic invention presaged Bellini by nearly two centuries and his sense of rhythm and attention to language gave his music a swing and undulation which was both ground-breaking and unique.

Stradella’s influence can be seen in the music of early Alessandro Scarlatti, Corelli, Handel, Bononcini, and Steffani. In fact when news of his assassination spread throughout Europe, Handel sent agents to Genoa to procure by means fair or foul any remaining manuscripts they could lay their hands on. Stradella’s serenata “Qual prodigo è ch'io miri” for voices and two orchestras features prominently in Handel’s 1739 oratorio Israel in Egypt (amongst other borrowings). Around 300 of Stradella’s manuscripts have survived in good condition, including four operas, more than 170 cantatas and six oratorios. The most complete repositories are in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena and the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria in Turin, although the odd autographs have popped up in the British Museum and both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Andrea de Carlo © Gabriela Torres Ruiz
Andrea de Carlo
© Gabriela Torres Ruiz

Stradella’s standing as one of the most important composers of the baroque period remains largely unknown outside the recondite world of early music scholars. However, since 2013 and in large part due to Andrea de Carlo’s admirable “Stradella Project” this musical lacuna could be about to change. De Carlo is not only considered today’s leading performance expert on Stradella but is also an accomplished double bass and viola da gamba player, jazz musician and passionate sailor (it is no coincidence that his own ensemble is called “Mare Nostrum”). The intuitive Roman maestro is not the only musician aware of the richness and importance of Stradella’s music and other exponents such as Enrico Gatti, Alessandro De Marchi and Claudio Astronio have also contributed to the renaissance.

De Carlo’s preferred modus operandi is to stage a major Stradella work during the eponymous Festival, then record it immediately after. The early releases began with the serenata La Forza delle Stelle in 2014.

Since then, the project continued with San Giovanni Crisostomo and Santa Editta which is about a somewhat obscure English do-gooder and naughty nun called Edith of Wilton. Despite the usual vows of poverty, Edith had a particular penchant for “luxurious golden garments” which surely would have disqualified her from beatification, let alone sainthood. It probably helped that her dad was the King of England at the time.

Santa Editta was followed in 2016 by another Stradella oratorio called Santa Pelagia which is even more fun as it concerns “the Harlot of Antioch” who was a 5th century equivalent of a high-class hooker and hoofer finding God but dying of starvation on the Mount of Olives as a result of her new-found piety.

Due to de Carlo’s meticulous research into Stradella’s use of the figured-bass, the voice parts in Santa Pelagia can be accompanied by up to eight basso continuo instruments including viola da gamba, cello, violon, archlute, two tiorbas, triple harp, harpsichord and organ.

The title role gets the lion’s share of the music and Roberta Mameli was an ideal Elsa – the Born Free one, not the bride of Brabant. The Rome-born soprano has a limpid pure tone, flawless technique and superb diction which is particularly important because of Stradella’s preoccupation with phonetics. She looked seriously glamourous and Pelagia’s conversion from sybarite to eremite would have been sorely regretted by anyone in Antioch except the eunuchs. Mameli also received impressive accolades for the subsequent recording.

De Carlo’s most recent endeavour in 2017 was Stradella’s last opera, La Doriclea, featuring soprano Emöke Barath accompanied by Joyce diDonato’s favourite baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro instead of the director’s usual Mare Nostrum musicians. The plot is more amusing than sainted nuns or reformed prostitutes and a number of fast patter buffo arias anticipate the rhythm and wit of Rossini. The character of Giraldo is a direct forebear of Mozart’s Leporello over one hundred years later.

In parallel with the recordings, the Festival Barocco Alessando Stradella occurs each September and in recent years has expanded from the supposed Stradella birthplace of Nepi. New locations included the Sala Petrassi in the Parco della Musica in Rome, several venues in the enchanting 12th century city of Viterbo and the acoustically splendid Scuderie which is part of the magnificent Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola, about 50 kilometres north of Rome. Fortunately, olfactory traces of “eau de cheval” have long since disappeared. As Nepi doesn’t even have a modest auberge let alone a Michelin rated hotel, such an expansion was warmly welcomed by Stradella Festival regulars.

Musical programming at the Festival is not limited to Stradelli himself. Last year Paolo da Col’s outstanding Odhecaton à capella ensemble sang music by Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Scarlatti, and more esoteric works by d’India, Frescobaldi, Corelli, Pasquini, Kapsberger and Corbetta were also performed in other concerts. That said, it is the work of Stradella which is the principal attraction of this Festival.

With soloists of the calibre of Roberta Mamelli, Emöke Barath, Raffaele Pe and Riccardo Novaro and outstanding instrumentalists such as star tiorba/ lutenist Simone Vallerotonda from Il Pomo d’Oro, the performance standard is very high indeed. For lovers of early music, especially those interested in one of the least known geniuses of the baroque age, the 2018 Festival Barocco Alessandro Stradella is a must.

Conclusion of <i>La Doriclea</i>
Conclusion of La Doriclea


This year’s Festival runs from 1st to 16th September.

Jonathan’s trips to Rome and Nepi were sponsored by the Festival Barocco Alessandro Stradella.