SACRATI La finta pazza (Alarcon)

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“What song did the Syrens sing,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne, “or what name Achilles took when he hid among the women, though the puzzling questions are not beyond guesswork.” We don’t know for how long the librettist Giulio Strozzi “perplexed”; but the name he chose for Achilles in La finta pazza (“The so-called madwoman”) was Phyllis (“Filli” in Italian). Once you know that, it’s hard not to see the hero, killer of Hector on the walls of Troy, in a new light.

But that’s running ahead. Achilles hides on Scyros at the request of his mother Thetis (Tetide) in order to thwart the prediction that he will be killed at Troy. Odysseus and Diomedes come to take him out. While on the island, Achilles fell in love with Deidamia and, unbeknownst to his father, King Lycomedes, fathered a son, Pyrrhus. Another complication is that Diomedes hopes to resume an earlier romance with Deidamia. Once unmasked, Achilles decides to be a man and leaves for Troy with the visitors. In an attempt to stop her from abandoning him, Deidamia feigns madness.

La finta pazza was the first opera composed by Francesco Sacrati (1605-50). Its premiere at the Teatro Novissimo in Venice took place on January 14, 1641: it thus preceded that of Monteverdi L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), an opera to which various composers, including Sacrati, are said to have contributed. Modified versions were staged throughout Italy and, duly adapted, it became the first opera to be performed publicly in France (Paris, 1645). The score, discovered in 1984, is probably – the sections of the libretto are inconsistent – from one of the tour versions.

The screenplay mixes serious and comic scenes, the writing for the latter being distinctly fruity. The comedy comes from the Eunuch and the Nurse (Nodrice), both played by men: the Nurse advises Deidamia to return to Diomedes, saying that she knows how to restore virginity to her mistress. The music is in the familiar style of Poppea: recitative, arioso and aria perfectly linked, plus some ensembles. The orchestra consists of a handful of strings, half a dozen continuo instruments and three instrumentalists doubling recorders and cornets. I’m not sure about the woodwinds – a somewhat later account book for another theater in the Venice State Archives lists only the strings and theorbo – but their contributions are innocuous (and very well played) . The accent is rightly placed on the vocals.

Deidamia has two lamentations in Act 2, rather too close together for dramatic balance. The second includes a refrain, sung twice, or even three times. (There is a discrepancy between what is heard and what is printed.) Anna Renzi, who originated the role, went on to sing the Forsaken Empress Octavia in Poppea, which also receives two lamentations. Mariana Flores sings expressively enough to almost convince you that Sacrati is as good as Monteverdi. His delusions are convincing and the final reconciliation duet is touching. Achilles, Ulysses and the eunuch are sung by male sopranos: all three deliver the text brilliantly, just like Diomedes. Marcel Beekman, the other tenor, is fun as the drag nurse. The writing for the dubbed roles, as performed, is incredibly elevated, with the three sopranos coming across as shrill; a welcome bass tone is provided by Lycomedes, Vulcan/Jove and the Captain. The small group plays well, led from the harpsichord by Leonardo García Alarcón.

The booklet is a disappointment. The libretto is given in four languages, the English version showing signs of having been translated from the French rather than the original Italian. This has led to some confusion: for example, the excessive love Thetis refers to is maternal and not filial; while in the introductory article, Pyrrhus is erroneously described as Deidamia’s grandson. There is no detailed synopsis, and scene and track numbers are transposed in the index.

Despite the seemingly happy ending, Achilles navigates his death from an arrow fired by Paris – in his heel, of course. Exactly 100 years after Sacrati, Handel covered the story in his last opera; during the same century, several composers set the libretto of Metastasio to music, Achilles as Sciro. There’s a good Handel DVD Deidamia: pity that the Palace of Versailles did not include one in addition to this beautiful number, as they did with their CD recordings of operas by Rousseau and Grétry.

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