Last fall, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan started their 30th season together by presenting for the first time to an American public Alessandro Scarlatti’s forgotten serenata entitled La gloria di primavera (The Glory of Spring). Now, the same musical forces introduced this extravagant work to Carnegie Hall’s public.

Diana Moore © Peter Everard Smith
Diana Moore
© Peter Everard Smith
In terms of complexity, the lesser known serenata – a celebratory or panegyrical full scale vocal and orchestral piece – is placed between a cantata and an opera seria. It required a richer instrumentation than a cantata but had fewer characters and was not normally fully staged. Every soloist sings in turn his own A-B-A structured aria preceded by a recitativo using just a minimal continuo accompaniment.

La gloria di primavera had its première exactly 300 years ago in Naples. The court composer Alessandro Scarlatti was commissioned to quickly write a pièce d’occasion, honoring the recent and long awaited birth of Archduke Leopold Johann, the heir of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. At the time it was first performed, La gloria was associated with the genuine hope that Europe could avoid another ravaging dynastic war. Unfortunately, the young prince died in a couple of months, optimism subsided quickly and, related or not to the historical events, Scarlatti’s opus, after just three successful public performances, faded into obscurity.

It is a mythical allegory anchored in historical facts. The text, written by Niccolò Giovo, the Neapolitan princess’ private secretary, includes very little as an evolving narrative. First, the four personified seasons reminisce on the significance of the prince’s birth, mentioning several symbols – the Danube, the eagle – of the Austrian Empire. A second cycle of arias contrasts the horrors of the recently ended War of the Spanish Succession with the beneficial-for-all peace brought by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Unable to agree which of them had more importance in terms of the conception, preservation and the birth of the April-born crown prince, the seasons invoke Jove to be their judge. Appearing at the beginning of the second part, the supreme god listens to their claims and obviously decides that Spring (Primavera), is the prizewinner. The remainder of the work offers a new series of statements regarding the importance of the Archduke’s birth and protective benedictions against the Empire’s enemies. The apotheosis is marked by Jove himself claiming the young prince as his spiritual son in a returned Golden Age.

The text is evidently not very enticing to a modern audience. The music though is moving and has kept a certain freshness. There are significant variations in terms of rhythm, color and timbre from one formally prescribed structure to the next which were clearly emphasized by McGegan and his ensemble. Several invocations of nature – pastoral images, a tempest, the flowing Danube – were all beautifully rendered. The conductor kept a brisk pace, avoiding lingering on any fioritura passage. During a performance in excess of two hours, the listener rarely felt a sensation of monotony. If the music, evidently composed by a master of his métier, is easily distinguishable from other similar creations by Scarlatti or a number of his contemporaries is a different question.

Among the members of the soloist quintet, English mezzo-soprano Diana Moore stood out in the role of Spring (Primavera), the winning contestant. Her dark-hued voice made especially memorable such arias as “Già fermo sull’empia ruota” or the “nightingale” dialogue with flutist Stephen Schwartz, “Canta dolce il rosignuolo”.

The character of Summer (Estate) was brought to live by Slovenian soprano Suzana Ograjenšek. Her clear voice was particularly effective in the description of war’s aftermath, “Dopo l’orrore”, and in the score’s only duet “Arda avvampi l’alme accenda” where, together with countertenor Clint van der Linde, she invoked the great forefathers of the recently born prince.

The male voices, although solid, were less outstanding. The passage work in the remarkable aria “È più caro il fonte e’l rio”, describing a brook “silvery foot” freed from melting ice, was a bit too demanding for Clint van der Linde in the role of Autumn. Tenor Nicholas Phan phrased well his several arias as Winter (Inverno) but his voice was not vivid enough. Finally, singing the role of Giove, bass-baritone Douglas Williams could have beamed more authority and power.

Interestingly enough, La gloria shared its fate with another full scale vocal and orchestral piece which the prolific Scarlatti premiered earlier in the same year. Also forgotten for centuries, the opera Carlo rè d’Alemagna was resurrected not long ago by Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante. Libraries might hide other Scarlatti gems. Maybe, one day, Nicholas McGegan will reintroduce another one to an eagerly awaiting audience.