Il Sant’Alessio

Stefano Landi, 1631

Stefano Landi’s stay in Padua was brief. After only two years or so, he returned to his home town of Rome to enter the service first of the Borghese family, then Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, and ultimately the Barberini. Yet his time in the north was noteworthy for the effect it had on his composition, particularly in Cortona, Pope Urban VIII
Cortona, Pope Urban VIII
(Wikimedia Commons)
conservative Rome: it was already evident in Morte d’Orfeo. Landi’s clear feeling for drama would be even more prominent in his landmark opera Il Sant’Alessio of 1632, written and produced as a Barberini spectacle.

Through family ties, Maffeo Barberini had held various posts including papal legate to the court of Henri IV of France, and Archbishop of Nazareth. In 1623 he was elected Pope Urban VIII, and among those who benefitted from his favour was Landi himself, who was assigned clerical duties at Saint Peter’s Basilica the next year, and installed as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria ai Monti. In 1629, Landi was elevated as a subdeacon, and joined the choir of the Sistine Chapel. His association with the Barberini continued for the rest of his life.

The family maintained ancestral ties with Tuscany and Florence in particular, where the mounting of operas had become an annual event. Among them were La regina Sant’Orsola (“Saint Ursula the Queen,” Palazzo Barberini
Palazzo Barberini, Rome
(Wikimedia Commons)
1625) and La Giuditta (“Judith,” 1626), much admired by the Barberini. In 1631, Francesco Barberini — the dedicatee of Giuditta — and his brother Taddeo, both nephews of Urban, sponsored Il Sant’Alessio (“Saint Alexis”), with music by Stefano Landi and libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi, a prelate and future Pope Clement IX. All three works presented the stories of historical rather than mythological characters, all three were religious in nature. Alessio especially picked up the new Jesuit habit of clerical drama and cast it in a specifically Roman flavour.

The canonical Saint Alexis was the son of a fifth–century Roman senator; he forsook his familial wealth and his wife for a life of poverty in Syria, caring for the poor. When a likeness of Saint Alexis Falconieri
Saint Alexis Falconieri
(Wikimedia Commons)
the Blessed Virgin revealed his true identity, Alexis fled to Rome and took up habitation as a beggar under the stairs of his father’s palace. He remained there, unrecognised by his family until his death seventeen years later.

The opera was presented at the Barberini Palace on 2 March 1631, then once again in February the next year. The 1634 publication was dedicated to prince Alexander Charles of Poland, who was present at the 1632 performance to inaugurate the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane (“Theatre of the Four Fountains”).

Landi, Se l’hore volano (excerpt)

If the hours fly and so take with them

what others have here, who shall give me wings

that I to the high pole may take flight,

and there repose?

Landi, Se l’hore volano (excerpt)

I want scarcely to do good [but] to live happy,

to keep myself amused, spontaneous, and carefree;

labour is inimical to me, and while I live thus

for me each day is a feast. Fa la la ...

Landi, Lasciate pur ch’io piango (excerpt)

Let me weep nonetheless, oh my Nurse,

too miserable fate presses upon my breast

if not given leave to cry in such extreme pain ...

... while I with my miserable, weary thoughts,

with sobbing sighs, mark the pace of the silent nights.

Landi, Alessio, che farai? (excerpt)

Alexis, what will you do?

Will you affect cruelty to those who, well you know,

wish by heaven and earth to show you solace?

Ah, cruel silence, cause of bitter quarrels!

I should hasten to reveal all.

Hold! for he alone who remains until the final hour

with steadfast heart shall gather its fruits.

Landi, O morte gradita (excerpt)

O welcome death, I yearn for you, I wait for you,

from sadness to delight your path leads.

O death, o welcome death ...

Landi, Lasciate il pianto (excerpt)

Leave off weeping, for the array of heaven

with happy song call the soul of Alexis

to higher spheres.

The part for Alexis is quite high, even though it was sung by a castrato. In fact, the cast was entirely male owing to its venue at the palace of a Cardinal. The parts for Alexis’s Wife and Mother — they did not merit being named — were also sung by castrati, and the parts for the pages, angels and other choruses were sung by boys, the Roman custom for boys’ school plays stretching back to Ignatius & Xavier and Eumelio.

Alessio is credited with a number of firsts, among them the inclusion of comic scenes and characters from contemporary life, as represented by the palace pages. More accurately, it was the first opera that depicted the turmoil and conflict within the mind of the hero. In that respect, Landi’s use of recitative — monody — was closer to the intent of its self–declared inventors, most conspicuously in the expressions of despair among Alexis’s Il Sant’Alessio, finale
Il Sant’Alessio, Finale
(Original Score)
wife, mother and father. On the other hand, aria and arietta passages are rather more frequent than hitherto, as characters pause and reflect on their circumstances, or anticipate future events.

Each of the opera’s three acts is preceded by a sinfonia in a manner very much like an overture, which would soon become typical. The orchestra comprises only ‘modern’ Baroque instruments — there are no viols, no cornetti. And it is premised on a historical, religious figure, one of the features of Roman opera.

Most importantly of all, however, is Alessio’s position as a watershed, in the history of opera entire, and in its Roman variety. The eponymous saint’s crisis is reached almost exactly at the halfway mark, in the fifth scene of the second act: the events of the first half lead up to that point, and its conclusion follows therefrom. Religious theme and boys–school production notwithstanding, there is none of the clumsy preachiness of Jesuit dramaturgy, and no officially approved interpretation of the events. The drama stands on its own.

⇐ Mazzocchi, Catena d’Adone

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