Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso. Anne Desler, mezzo-soprano; Nicki Kennedy, soprano; Marina De Lisa, mezzo-soprano; Lucia Sciannimanico, mezzo-soprano; Luca Dordolo, tenor; Thierry Gregoire, countertenor; Martin Kronthaler, bass-baritone; Cora de Camera Italiano and Modo Antiquo conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli. CPO. $50.99 (3 CDs).
Ay!! Amor: Songs of Love and Songs of Women from the Greater Mediterranean Basin. Françoise Atlan, vocal; Kiya Tabassian, setar; Ziya Tabassian, tombak, def, dayereh and percussion; Saeed Kamjoo, kamâncheh vielle and souroud. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
The human voice does not have the range and power of the organ, or the delicacy and precision of the flute, but it is nevertheless the voice that is the benchmark against which much music is judged. There is a level at which people whose vocal abilities are modest at best – that is, most of us – are enraptured by those whose abilities are far greater…and we appreciate them in a different way from the way we admire a superb violinist or excellent pianist. Vivaldi, whose operas are going through a welcome period of rediscovery, was particularly aware of the effectiveness of wonderful singing, and he strove – within the strictures of the formats of the works of his era – to provide as much of it as possible. Orlando Furioso, based on Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem and completed in 1713, is an especially fine example of Vivaldi’s vocal writing – although it is but one of three operas that the composer wrote from the same source (the others are Orlando finto pazzo  and Orlando ). As in Vivaldi’s other operas, and in accordance with practices of the time, the events of the story of Orlando Furioso are told in recitative – principally a narration of many of the exploits of the hero, Orlando, and the tale of the sorceress, Alcina. But the vocal and emotional heart of the opera is in the arias in which the characters express their emotions – arias that (again in accordance with period practices) were often reused by Vivaldi in other operas where similar emotion needed to be expressed. It just so happens that the arias as used in Orlando Furioso fit the story so well that the opera stands above many others in effectiveness. The reason is Vivaldi’s emphasis on the two mismatched couples, whose love comes into conflict with their duty. One matchup is between the Christian Orlando (Anne Desler) and the pagan princess Angelica (Nicki Kennedy), who is eventually removed from the action (and from interference with Orlando’s duties to God and country) when she saves the wounded Saracen knight, Medoro (Luca Dordolo), falls in love, and elopes with him. The other couple in difficulty consists of the female Christian warrior, Bradamante (Lucia Sciannimanico), and the Saracen, Ruggiero (Thierry Gregoire). It is Ruggiero who is taken captive by Alcina (Marina De Lisa) and must be freed, after which he converts to Christianity and he and Bradamante are married. Federico Maria Sardelli leads a performance that contains everything expected of a revival of an 18th-century opera today: fine playing, a thorough understanding of appropriate performance practices, well-chosen tempos, and plenty of ornamentation in the vocal lines. The performance rises even higher because the singers bring emotional coloration as well as stylistic correctness to their arias, with Desler and Kennedy especially effective and Gregoire in fine countertenor voice. As a celebration of the human voice in Western classical music, Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso is a major achievement. So is this performance of the opera.
But although Italy is a Mediterranean nation and the vocal lines of Italian opera represent a pinnacle of a certain type, there are other, very distinct uses of the human voice in and around the Mediterranean, and some of those are explored at length in French-Moroccan singer Françoise Atlan’s CD featuring love songs, and other songs with a female focus, from a variety of cultures that are more or less in Italy’s geographic region – but are very far indeed from the sensibilities of Italian opera. These are mostly songs from the Persian, Iberian, French and Judeo-Spanish trouvère tradition, which dates to the 12th century and continued until early in the 14th. This is the world of, most famously, Chrétien de Troyes, but many other poet-composers contributed songs and melodies as well; and although the tradition itself died out long ago, Atlan and the ensemble Constantinople have revived it partly through their performances and partly through composition of new songs for this CD. There is, to Western ears, a decidedly exotic cast to everything here, even though much of the music is European in origin. A main reason is the use of such instruments as the setar and kamâncheh (a bowed string instrument that could never be mistaken for a violin). The mixed use of percussion is attractive here, and some of the songs flow with emotion, but the CD has something of a flavor of exoticism for its own sake; it gets a (+++) rating. Still, as an exploration of high skill in the use of the human voice for purposes very different from those of traditional Western singing, including opera, Ay!! Amor is a fascinating demonstration of just how many ways the vocal instrument within a skilled human being can be used.