Continuing this season’s Italian theme, the NTR ZaterdagMatinee at the Concertgebouw presented a rare Baroque treat: Il diluvio universale, Michelangelo Falvetti’s treatment of the biblical Flood. Falvetti, a Sicilian composer priest, held the prestigious position of maestro di cappella at Palermo Cathedral in the 1670s. In 1682 he took on the same position in Messina and Il diluvio universale premiered that same year.

Chœur de chambre de Namur © Jacques Verrees
Chœur de chambre de Namur
© Jacques Verrees

The only manuscript of this startling oratorio lay forgotten in Messina for more than three centuries, until Leonardo García Alarcón and his Cappella Mediterranea added it to their repertoire. Cappella Mediterranea is a small orchestra made up of highly competent Baroque musicians with almost palpable enthusiasm for this music. Their zest was matched by that of the young soloists and the animated Chœur de Chambre de Namur, all singing without a score. The playing and singing were not always flawless, but the obvious devotion to the work more than made up for the occasional scratch on the varnish.

Il diluvio universale is a genuine Baroque jewel. The story is told through dialogue between Noah, his wife Rad, God and a number of allegorical figures. The high-calibre libretto by Vincenzo Giattini has an emotional immediacy through precise choice of words, and both composer and librettist summon up gripping images. The pure vocal lines in the arias and the rhythmical accents in the recitatives hark back to Monteverdi, but Falvetti’s is a distinctly original voice. The instrumentation is mostly simple and lucid in colour and intent. For example, God (bass Matteo Bellotto) is ushered in by the organ and the proficient trombones and cornettos echo his presence in the ensembles. Expertly playing an array of non-Western percussion instruments, including a clay jug drum, Keyvan Cheminari laced the music with a Middle Eastern flavour, evoking Sicily’s Moorish heritage.

After the aristocratic counterpoint of the opening “Sinfonia”, Evelyn Ramírez, personifying Divine Justice, rose from the midst of the audience to sing the Prologue. Her smoky mezzo-soprano and impressive coloratura exuded authority and ire. The Four Elements had no choice but to do her bidding and flood the sinful world. A flash-forward of rushing waters is heard in the cascading runs of the ensemble “Le nubi funeste”. The mounting threat of the storm intensifies when the chorus joins Water (soprano Magali Arnault Stanczak) and the other soloists. Falvetti gives the most dramatically descriptive passages to the chorus, who sang with prismatic colour and full engagement with the words. The most memorable chorus is perhaps “E chi mi dà aita”, an unsettling madrigal in which the text is chopped up to imitate the gulps of the drowning, who go down with fearful cries. This graphic chorus fits into the religious iconography of Southern Europe, with its undiluted depictions of suffering.

The longest excerpt in the work is a marvellous duet between Noah and Rad, “Dolce sposo Noè”, which blended the smooth tenor of Fernando Guimarães with the beguiling silken spin of soprano Mariana Flores. The score also features infectious dance rhythms, the most singular being Death’s victory tarantella, exuberantly performed by countertenor Fabian Schofrin. In hooded cape and Grim Reaper makeup, he swung his scythe across the stage, momentarily transforming the concert into a mummers show. Preceding the final ensemble, the trio “Ecco l’Iride paciera” is also eminently danceable. Introduced by liquid lutes, it was charmingly sung by Ms Flores, Ms Arnault Stanczak and soprano Caroline Weynants as Human Nature.

This trio was the first encore in response to loud cheering by the audience, after Mr García Alarcón pointed out that a string of scalloped notes in its melody represents the rainbow. More cheering prompted a surprising second encore. Falvetti also wrote an oratorio called Nabucco, and the Babylonian king is also an eponymous opera by Giuseppe Verdi, whose final opera Falstaff ends in a comic fugue for the whole cast of characters. Confused? Never mind. The point is that we got to hear what Verdi’s “Tutto nel mondo è burla” sounds like on Baroque instruments and with mostly modest-sized voices. When the joy of performing spills over so naturally into the audience, what is being performed hardly matters.