Whether on silver screen or in symphony hall, it can be a curse to be type cast. So consummately did Bach play the part of a composer of learned fugues that his lighter side is too often ignored. The many operas of Haydn are forgotten because his chief role in history is as master of the symphony and the string quartet.
No one suffers from this pigeonholing more than Domenico Scarlatti, who, as a historical actor plays the part of Mr. Sonata. Yet history can be forgiven for typecasting him in that role since he wrote some 555 endlessly varied, challenging, and always-unexpected sonatas in this genre, one he virtually invented. These pieces will keep you fit of mind and finger with their tremendous humor and frequent hand-crossing razzle-dazzle.
It’s fitting that some of the easier sonatas are staples of children’s piano lessons to this day, as Scarlatti composed many of them for his royal patron and pupil, Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, whom he began to teach when she was just eight years old. Scarlatti had left Rome in 1719 at the age of 34 to become director of music in Lisbon. He would remain in the service of the Portuguese and later — after Maria Barbara’s 1729 marriage to Ferdinand of Spain — the Spanish monarchies until his death in 1757.
Scarlatti was born in Naples, capital of opera, and his father, Alessandro, was a leading composer of theatrical music. The elder Scarlatti had great plans for his talented son to attain greatness in this most lucrative and fame-making genre. After further studies in Venice and early failures in Naples on account of his inexperience, Domenico made his way to Rome where his rising celebrity ultimately led to him being poached by the Portuguese.
Yes, the riches of Scarlatti’s sonatas will always mark his most valued contribution to the music culture of his own time and ours. But is important to remember that the father’s desire to create a master operatic composer was fulfilled, even if the son’s career soon led, literally, in another direction.
Just how good Domenico Scarlatti was at the opera game is made clear in a vibrant new recording of his intermezzo La Dirindina by Ars Lyrica Houston issued on the Sono Luminus label. One of the premier early music ensembles in this or any other country, Ars Lyrica was founded 15 years ago by the harpsichordist, organist, and musicologist Matthew Dirst, who has recently seen the publication not just of this disc but also of an important new book on the reception of J. S. Bach’s keyboard music. The range and quality of Dirst’s creations are as remarkable as the relentless ease with which he brings it all off.
While impressing musical Grand Tourists to the Eternal City as a keyboard virtuoso (visitors that included his close contemporary Handel), Scarlatti also composed more than a dozen stage works. Sadly, most are lost, but among the survivors is the wickedly funny La Dirindina. Intermezzos were the sitcoms of the operatic age, the name deriving from the insertion of their two short halves into the two intermissions separating the three acts of serious operas. Intermezzos typically lasted 30-40 minutes in total, serious operas three or four hours. Outings to the theater in Scarlatti’s day were long ones, though reports vary as to how much of the evening’s music was listened to amidst the audience’s feasting, gambling, gossiping, and all-purpose debauching — especially as indulged in by the wealthiest of the patrons eonsconed in their loges.
The intermezzo provided not only comic relief for the serious opera that surrounded it with tales of gods and heroes, but it also proved an endlessly adaptable medium for satirizing the excesses and vanities of operatic culture. The rich, powerful and bored have always been good making fun of themselves — all this fun and frivolity to be enjoyed on the assumption that their position atop society will only be strengthened by such titillating self-flagellation.
The hilarious comedy of Scarlatti’s La Dirindina targets the opera singers and their trainers first, with plenty of collateral damage being inflicted on their rich backers. Scarlatti’s intermezzo premiered along with his now-lost opera Ambleta in Rome in 1715. This stinging little farce is joyously and ingeniously self-referential, most flamboyantly so in the first of the two scenes, when the castrato cad, Liscione, makes an allusion to red scarves — “Scarlatti” in Italian — a word play squeezed for all it is worth by the score and delivered with relish by the young tenor, Joseph Gaines. This is followed by a reference to gambling, supposedly a cherished vice of the composer himself.
Liscione is trying to pry the impressionable soprano, Dirindina, from the clutches of the third member of the intermezzo’s cast, the lecherous old music master Don Carissimo. While appearing at first hearing to be an ingénue, Dirindina, is in fact clever and calculating. It’s an ambiguity captured by mezzosoprano Jamie Barton’s voice, which is buoyed by insouciant youthfulness, but is also rich, knowing, and powerful. Having a tenor sing the role of a castrato, whose voices never made it down below alto thanks to the barbaric practice of pre-pubescent castration, comically confuses expectations: there is real testosterone in Gaines’ singing, assured and mocking.
This disconnect between voice and body fuels the hilarious conclusion of the farce in which the eavesdropping Don Carissimo dupes himself into believing that his young charge, Dirindina, has been impregnated by the castrato. Having begun with a singing lesson in which Brian Shircliffe’s Don Carissimo has great fun with gender-bending falsetto, the intermezzo ends with a post-modern shotgun marriage.
The rollicking libretto by Girolamo Gigli includes is stuffed with sexual innuendo and throws in a chuckle about infanticide to boot. Not surprisingly, therefore, the text was quickly censored by the papal authorities, who harbored a conflicted attitude towards the opera typical of prelates and prudes: when it comes to degenerate music, the best approach is public censure and private consumption. Undeterred, the crafty Gigli had the script published outside of Rome beyond the reach of the censors, and the script immediately became what Hollywood would call a hot property. Scarlatti’s setting was a smash for its flair at capturing the lusts and follies of his comic characters. His composerly palette has many tints: from bright melodic shapes to glinting metrical gestures to muted and unctuous chromaticism. The unbuttoned sensuality of the intermezzo is urged to colorful life by Dirst’s brisk and incisive direction.
After the rampant, radiant charade of Dirindina, the disc closes with Scarlatti’s cantata Pur nell sonno, a text by the most famous librettist of the age, Pietro Metastasio, devoted to the theme of embittered love. The sinfonia’s first movement alternates between restive polyphony and flirting trills; the second movement is a minuet, noble and pained. The almost manic oscillations of this instrumental introduction set the stage for the despairing, love-plagued hope of opening aria:
At least in sleep my beloved comes to comfort my pains.
Love, if you are just, make my dreams come true, or don’t let me wake at all.
The object of this obsession is the mythical Phyllis and the singer of this soprano cantata would have originally been a high-voiced castrato. Céline Ricci’s voice has the texture, nuance, and power to evoke the great singers of Metastasio’s era, and she brings the emotional darkness of the piece to searing life, most dramatically in the raging coloratura of the closing aria.
On this disc Ars Lyrica gives us the operatic Scarlatti — Domenico not Alessandro — ranging from the knee slapping to the suicidal. A pair of four movement sonatas fills out these dramatic explorations. Who could or should resist the delights of Mr. Sonata?
These pieces are done not at the solo keyboard — though Dirst is a masterful Scarlatti player — but on mandolin with harpsichord continuo. The first note of Richard Savino’s mandolin blooming above the dulcet chords of the lute-stop of Dirst’s harpsichord brought a smile not just to my face, but also to my soul. Never have I heard more gracious and charming music-making, sunny even in a minor key. These mini-operas of intermezzo and cantata, and the sonatas that adorn them all demonstrate Scarlatti’s genius for finding beauty in both light and shadow.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.