First performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1776 La passione di nostro Signore Gesu Cristo is a work of Salieri’s early maturity. It’s a passion oratorio but one that gorges on operatic convention to make its powerfully dramatic points. If it’s further to be anatomised, the traditional recitative-aria and solo and chorus block voicings also faithfully follow operatic form and so Azione sacra is as good a term as oratorio to describe Salieri’s work.
Interesting that the librettist of this oratorio, none other than Pietro Metastasio, avoids biblical passages completely. In doing so, this lets in an emotive realism that allows a quasi-operatic treatment by Prague-born Myslivecek. The composer's penchant for Metastasio in his thirty-odd operas obviously extended to oratorio. The apostle Peter becomes a major figure in the drama. Absent from the crucifixion itself, he has to make urgent enquiry into the state of play. Enter Mary Magdalene - a Biblical character under much re-evaluation in current spirituality - who accompanied Jesus to the cross. Other characters include John (here of course Giovanni), the second eyewitness, Joseph of Arimathea (Giuseppe).
Giovanni Paisiello, whose works Mozart thought enough of to study closely, was mostly forgotten in the nineteenth century, and this Passione de Gesù Cristo remained buried until 1998. This is its second recording; a Polish version on the Arts label, from that year, is also available. The oratorio's text is by the preeminent operatic librettist of the eighteenth century, Pietro Metastasio. One can easily understand why the work has never had a critical mass of general listeners, but for those interested in Mozart's world it's truly fascinating. This passion story features neither Jesus nor Pontius Pilate, nor any of the other usual personages. Instead it takes place after Christ's crucifixion, recounted by St. John, Joseph of Arimatea, and Mary Magdalene (in surely her biggest part until Jesus Christ Superstar came along) to St. Peter, with the accompaniment of a chorus of Christ's other followers; in the second part, all bewail the corruption of Jerusalem and look forward to Christ's resurrection.
The Venetian-born composer Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) had held the position of Vizekapell-meister to the Habsburg emperor Charles VI for nearly 15 years when, in 1730, Ketro Metastasio moved from Rome to Vienna to take up an appointment as Poeta di sua Maesta Cesarea e Cattolica at the imperial court. In that time Caldara had set nearly 40 opera and oratorio libret¬ti, and before his death on 27 December 1736, he was to provide the first settings of nine of Metastasio's opera and oratorio texts. Among the oratorios was La Passione di Gesu Crista, Signer Nostra.
JJohann Gottlieb Naumann, a contemporary of Joseph Haydn, was associated with Dresden, worked in Sweden and travelled in Italy. In his Passione di Gesù Cristo he concentrates on smaller scale emotions and conflicts – albeit in the context of the (conventional) Passion story. It was written, probably, in 1767. That’s quite an undertaking for a twenty-six year old, although Naumann already had several other vocal and choral successes to his name.