The oratorio as a musical form emerged toward the end of the seventeenth century as a kind of "spiritual exercise" encouraged by the Congregazione dell'Oratorio in Rome. The performances took place in oratories (prayer halls) constructed above church naves and were intended to be attractive but edifying entertainments. Then as later, oratorios generally reflected the popular forms and styles of secular music – and in late Renaissance and Baroque Italy, this meant opera, though based on religious rather than mythological and heroic themes. The most prolific composer in this genre was Antonio Caldara (c1670-1736); New Grove lists 43 oratorios (in addition to many operas) and there are probably more that have been lost, written for patrons in his native Venice, Rome, Florence, Mantua, and Vienna.
Through the combination of sacred and profane that she embodies, the profoundly human personality of Mary Magdalene greatly inspired artists of the Baroque era, whether painters, poets or composers. It was in the sphere of influence of Italian oratorios, highly prized at the court of Vienna, that Antonio Bertali devoted a most moving sepolcro to her in 1663, a genre traditionally played during Holy Week. In 1617, in Mantua, it was in the form of theatrical interludes that she was honoured by court composers such as Salomone Rossi, Muzio Effrem and Claudio Monteverdi, who wrote the prologue for this other Maddalena.
A young man studying in an academy secretarial practice makes writing letters addressed to an imaginary recipient who supposedly lives in Rome. One day, just for fun, it gets to write a love letter and, by chance, that letter is mailed and arrives at the hands of someone who, moved by curiosity, decided to inform the sender.
Antonio Caldara, in this recently rediscovered church opéra, reaches a rare level of beauty and intensity. Beauty essentially due to the perfect blend and contrast between the various voices. The two alti and the two soprani are absolutely marvellous in their complementary values and hues, and they enhance the bass and the tenor in a unique way. Intensity due to the debate in Maddalena between carnal love and spiritual christian love. This debate is represented by the fight between the two alti, Amor Celeste and Amor Terreno, redoubled with the same debate between the two soprani…
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
Alessandro Scarlatti was only 24 and had just begun his enormously successful operatic career when he set a libretto by that great Roman patron of the arts, Cardinal Pamphili, on the subject of repentance and divine grace. It was performed before a distinguished audience by a small group of leading singers and instrumentalists of the day in March 1685—the year of the birth of Alessandro's son Domenico (in fact, as a matter of interest, three days before the birth of J. S. Bach). This simple little morality (oratorio is too grandiose a term for it) shows Magdalen torn between youthful pleasures and repentance for hedonistic living: the subject is treated in a sequence of extremely brief arias (and a few duets) and recitatives, which add up to a rather bitty effect, all the more because of seemingly haphazard key-sequences. There is little evidence of the da capo aria form later to be so closely associated with Scarlatti: there are, however, several examples (as in the very first aria) of 'devise' openings.