THE acoustic of Holy Trinity, Rotherhithe, enhanced the UK première of a Baroque dramatic oratorio performed by a fresh-sounding ensemble that is relatively new to the early-music scene.
Holy Trinity may lack the fame of St Mary’s near by, but it has other assets: among them, a barrelled ceiling that amplifies the sound richly, and a semi-circular non-recessed tympanum at the east end (embellished with Hans Feibusch’s mural) which reflects sound impressively, but not imperiously. There remains a sense of intimacy.
In this so-called “urban village”, the ensemble Musica Antica Rotherhithe has spread its wings for the past three seasons since it was founded by Oliver Doyle (the Vicar is the Revd Andrew Doyle) and Jessica Eucker.
With courage so early in its career, the ensemble has championed rare repertoire. One of its recent successes was a semi-staged production of an anonymous 17th-century comedy, Lo Spedale (L’ospedale: “The Hospital”), which has been toured and recorded. Luigi Rossi (1597-1693) is another composer whose work it has promoted; complete operas have been featured; and Antonio Caldara’s Easter oratorio, The Magdalen at the Feet of Christ, has been sung in the original Italian.
So the Baroque is its speciality; and freshly rediscovered work, often edited by the young tenor and harpsichordist Oliver Doyle, who started out a specialist academic in this field, is a selling-point. The church was full: daring to present “new” early repertoire can pay off, for both musicians and audience.
Rossi was Neapolitan; it was in Mantua, Venice, and then especially (for opera) Naples that the early Baroque really took off. Il Diluvio Universale, however — the story of the flood and an imagining of God’s interaction with Noah — is by a composer who cut his teeth further south: Michel’Angelo Falvetti centred his career on Sicily. He was head of cathedral music in Palermo and then (from 1682) held a similar appointment in Messina. This substantial narrative work may date from the later period.
It does have a bit of the workaday Neapolitan or Roman about it: Falvetti was a pupil of Carissimi, and his structural influence perhaps shows in this. The musical surprises – moments of intensity funnelled into the word-setting, hints of chromatic affect — are there, but perhaps limited. The strikingly agreeable element in the work is its extensive solo work. With this sextet of singers, the individuality of the voices and depiction of character was eloquent, by turns forceful and tender.
Caitlin Goreing, who sings the important part of Divine Justice, packs a punch with her judicial authority in an interplay of the four elements, summoned to do her will like the plagues of Egypt or Prospero’s Caliban. A proportion of the vocal parts is interesting and even original recitative. Several of the arias were thrilling, such as Justice’s opening “Pity, resist no more. The time is come to punish”, which revealed Goreing’s enticing low registers, as well as a strong top; and her summoning of the waters, during which viola da gamba and guitar danced attendance.
There was much else to remember: theorbo (Peter Martin) in some short interludes or musical prefaces; a poignant ground bass (for Noah’s wife, with delightful mezzo timbres from Camilla Seale), which miraculously lurches up a key. Noah’s warning to his wife of what impends (“Cara consorte”) is a passage that could almost be from Handel’s Rinaldo, and concludes in a few simple soprano-tenor duetting bars.
On several occasions, the ensemble, or perhaps Doyle, as editor and deeply versed interpreter of the composer, interpreted Falvetti’s wishes as being for a marked adagio. Every time, it paid off, bringing added poignancy to the acute distress before salvation is finally at hand.
Falvetti writes a sung part for God: the baritone Joachim Sabbat thundered away in extended recitatives, often making unusual lurches or leaps to exemplify the divine wrath (“the temerarious claws of ingrate man’s yet more ungrateful children” . . . “Melt, ye heavens, rain down in floods . . . overflow Etna’s snows and the fires of Vesuvius”). “From the caverns of deep Erebus”, Morte (Death) hovers and threatens, positively licking his lips, not least in a passage that served as an eerie danse macabre. Tristram Cooke (low bass and countertenor in one) produced a black-hooded figure as hilarious as sinister (one thinks of Arnalta, Poppea’s bass nurse in Monteverdi’s opera). Here was accomplished character acting.
Some of the choruses, splendidly balanced, were brisk, providing a useful contrast. The full orchestral sections were electric. It is Eucker’s Human Nature — Natura umana — who, with some beautifully poised staccato from the strings, sees off this cranky scythe-bearing acolyte, who belongs more with Hades and Charon than with the God of the Old Testament.
The peroration is perhaps too brief: clouds vanish, light shines once more, jubilation takes over, and dove and rainbow have a brief say. No animals à la Noye’s Fludde, just a gasp of final penitence, but as abstract as the four-elements opening.
Musica Antica Rotherhithe are looking to tour more widely, and can be handsomely recommended to festival organisers from Brighton to Hexham and Newcastle.
Their next concert at Holy Trinity is “Music (Airs) for the Sun King”, on Friday 24 April at 7.30 p.m.. The present event, supported generously by Mr Wee Kuang Tai MNA, was held in aid of Operation Noah, a UK-based charity set up to provide a Christian response to the climate crisis.