Antonio Caldara was a prominent composer of the period between the 17th and the 18th century, all but forgotten today. Born in Venice, in 1711 he moved to Vienna at the Hapsburg Court where he greatly influenced musical life. There, he came in contact with Pietro Metastasio, the court poet, whose plays and librettos dominated the opera world. He produced several sacred texts, and the poem La Morte d’Abel was set in music some 40 times in the century which followed its composition. Caldara’s La Morte d’Abel was the first such oratorio, written for the great castrato Farinelli, personal friend of Metastasio, who sang the part of Abel in the 1732 premiere.

Soloists, Gianluca Capuano and Il canto di Orfeo
© Marco Borrelli

The part of Abel is almost unrecognisable as a Farinelli role; there is only a hint of the virtuosity he was famous for. It relies instead on an intimate score, where the singer displays his (or her, in this case) emotional interpretation, phrasing and musical artistry.

Salzburg's Whitsun festival, dedicated this year to the lost art of the castrati, presented a production of Caldara’s oratorio based on a star-studded cast, supported by a wonderful Baroque orchestra and chorus. The score is typical of Caldara: the recitative form the basis for the narration of the story, in Monteverdian fashion, but they are interrupted by more modern arias, influenced by Scarlatti and the Neapolitan school. The oratorio opens with a strictly contrapuntal fugue, beautifully performed by the orchestra Il canto d’Orfeo, led by Gianluca Capuano. The fugue is also the basis of both choral interventions, one at the end of each act, where the chorus, almost in Ancient Greek tradition, comments and explains the events. The Bachchor Salzburg, meticulously prepared by Markus Obereder, was one of the best performers of the day, with a youthful, brilliant sound and beautifully shaped musical phrases. The orchestra was excellent overall; Capuano has much respect for the singers and supports without drowning them, while at the same time managing to insert strong drive into the orchestral passages. There was freshness and spontaneity in his direction.

The cast was uniformly on an exceptionally high level. Young mezzo Lea Desandre sang Abel with a warm voice of beautiful colour, her interpretation sweet and, at times, noble and slightly detached. This set the character of Abel on a different philosophical level from the others, doing justice to the subtitle to the text (“The death of Abel as an image of that of our Lord”). Abel is the image and the premonition of Jesus, his death the announcement of the death of our Saviour. This is particularly obvious in the aria “Quel buon pastor son io”, where Abel describes himself as a “good shepherd” who takes care of every one of his sheep. While Abel in the Genesis is described as a real, physical shepherd, the hint to the Good Shepherd is obvious.

Cain was Christophe Dumaux, whose deep countertenor, rich of a multitude of colours unusual for this kind of voice, was very well suited to the murderous brother. He was spectacular in the description of Cain’s rage and fury, truly giving meaning to the psychological interpretation of Metastasio: Cain hates Abel, and cannot say why, the lack of an objective reason enraging him even more. His remorse aria, with cello, organ and natural trombone (Seth Quistad) accompaniment, was very moving. His stage presence, with a full black beard and fiery black eyes, was stunning next to Desandre’s sweet, petite, angelic Abel.

Julie Fuchs, as Eve, had an imperfect beginning, with some tension in her high notes, but she grew during the performance, gaining confidence in her silvery bright soprano. She ended up almost stealing the show with her lamentation aria after Abel’s death, where she displayed great depth of feeling, leaning into the beautifully slow tempo, wisely using her messa di voce to tune and crank up the emotional involvement. It was a very moving performance.

The angel, sung by Nuria Rial, is the character who represents the voice of God in the biblical text. If I am allowed a critique to the composer, the score for this character seemed often out of place, aiming more at “pretty effect” rather than interpreting the text. So, for example, when the angel announces the terrible curse against Cain, the music is typical happy-go-lucky-Baroque aria, which seems awkward. This is hardly Rial’s fault of course. She was brilliant in the delivery, with good technique and sparkling coloratura.

Adam was sung by Nahuel Di Pierro, who showed good command of period technique and a spontaneous, enthusiastic attitude which more than compensated for very few episodes where he seemed to lose style. His interpretation of the concerned father was very engaging and human.