The "100 Years of Italian Opera" series released by Opera Rara is unique in the annals of opera recordings. However, this installment is especially exciting as it documents the evolution of Italian opera during the 1820's, the decade when romanticism truly began to come into its own on the operatic stage. Opera Rara has lovingly compiled a variety of arcana written by composers famous and forgotten. Included is everything from overtures to arias, duets, ensembles, and entire scenes.
The English, historical-instrument, Baroque ensemble La Serenissima (the term was a nickname for the city of Venice) has specialized in somewhat scholarly recordings that nevertheless retain considerable general appeal, and the group does it again with this release. The program offers some lesser-known composers, and some lesser-known pieces by famous composers like the tiny and fascinating Concerto alla rustica for two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo, RV 151. What ties the program together formally is that it covers a range of Italian cities that were becoming cultural centers as they declined in political power: not only Venice (Vivaldi, Albinoni, Caldara), but also Padua (Tartini), Bologna (Torelli), and Rome (Corelli). There are several works by composers known only for one or two big hits, and these are especially rewarding. Sample the opening movement of Tartini's Violin Concerto E major, DS 51, with its unusual phrase construction and daringly chromatic cadenza passage: it has the exotic quality for which Tartini became famous, but it does not rely on sheer virtuosity. That work is played by leader Adrian Chandler himself, but he also chooses pieces for a large variety of other solo instruments: the Italian Baroque was about more than the violin. Each work on the album has something to recommend it, and collectively the performances may make up the best album of 2017 whose booklet includes footnotes.