Mention the name 'Lulier' to even the most informed of Baroque music enthusiasts, and the chances are that they will be stumped. Born in Rome in around 1660, little is known about the early years of Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier, but as an adult he played regularly in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome for a number of years, in 1679 becoming a member of the noted Congregazione di Santa Cecilia, a musical society which exists to the present day. In 1681, Lulier began to work in the service of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, and later, in the 1690s, that of Cardinal Ottoboni, under whose patronage he remained until his death in 1700. He also worked for the Borghese family, and therefore likely played in an orchestra led by one Arcangelo Corelli.

Oxford Baroque © Ralph Williamson
Oxford Baroque
© Ralph Williamson

Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier's biographical oratorio Santa Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi (1687) was this weekend given its modern première by the up-and-coming ensemble Oxford Baroque. In a sense, it reflects the oratorio/early-operatic model prevalent at the time, in that it combines recitative, arioso, and solo and duet arias. It tells a fragment of the true story of Catarina, the daughter of a distinguished Roman Catholic, Camillo de' Pazzi, who took the name Maria Maddalena upon entering a convent. Various miracles were attributed to her, and she was canonised in 1669, some 62 years after her death aged 41. The oratorio begins as Catarina indicates her desire to enter a convent. As her parents try to dissuade her, Amor Divino (Divine Love) speaks to Caterina to give her courage to follow her vocation. Strengthened by this, Caterina resolves to pledge her service to God. Part II focuses on her life in the Carmelite convent (where she takes the name of Sister Maria Maddalena): her temptation to return to the outside world, and her ultimate realisation that the more she suffers, the more she is consoled by her suffering – yet, by loving God, she would never suffer as much as she wanted.

At its lavish première at the Palazzo Pamphili in Rome, the orchestra comprised 59 players (including violins, violas, cellos, double basses, lutes, trumpets and a trombone); tonight's performance, in the relatively intimate surrounds of the chapel of The Queen's College, Oxford, was underpinned by a starkly reduced orchestra comprising two violins, and one each of viola, cello, and double bass, supported by harpsichord and chamber organ. It was perhaps an interesting academic exercise to have reduced the orchestra so drastically, but, despite some sharp and stylish playing by the instrumentalists, this was sadly at the expense of interest – not to mention dramatic effect, when it was warranted. The lack of a translation, coupled with the generous acoustic, made it difficult to follow the story and left the audience with little idea of the intricacies of the story.

The music itself was, nevertheless, delightful. The ensemble of young professionals was ably directed by Jeremy Summerly, whose scholarship, musicianship and enthusiasm permeated the performance. Tuning troubles in the part of La Madre (sung by the American mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil) – particularly at the beginning of phrases, which often started very high in the register – soon gave way to a fullness of sound that particularly befitted her motherly role. Her dynamic control was superb, though it was a shame that the acoustic made it so difficult, at times, to understand the words being sung. La Madre was firmly supported by fellow American Joshua Copeland, whose rich baritone voice made him very convincing as Il Padre, the smallest vocal role in the oratorio. The singers' duet, in which they expressed their joy at their daughter, Santa Maria's obvious sense of fulfilment in her life at the convent, was radiant; a highlight of the entire performance. Oxford-based David Lee gave an accomplished performance as Amor Divino, a demanding, high-pitched tenor role, showing a little vocal tiredness only once. He conveyed the transcendental nature of his part (in a story otherwise involving earthly beings) with aplomb.

The star of the show was undeniably Elizabeth Drury, soprano, in the technically challenging title role of Santa Maria, who displayed incredible vocal nimbleness throughout. The occasional hint of breathiness lower down in the range was easily outweighed by the purity and splendour of her voice as it soared ever higher above the instrumental parts.

Overall, whilst many aspects of the performance were very enjoyable indeed, it did not leave me with a burning desire to discover more of this long-lost composer's music; rather, it left me wanting more of Oxford Baroque itself. The group was recently selected for the Brighton Early Music Festival's Live! Scheme and will be performing at the Festival in September; as an exciting set-up of young, professional early music specialists, with expert input from musicians well established in the field, Oxford Baroque is one ensemble to watch closely.