Excerpt from my novel, A House Near Luccoli©
(Fictional performance of
Alessandro Stradella’s Christmas Cantata
Ah, Troppo è ver
at the church of Santa Maria Maddalena
Genoa, 24 December, 1681.)
Travelers through her life had spoken of il Presepi Viventi* in Roma or Napoli, staged elaborately like an opera or simply when peasants gathered in a town or village marketplace. Santa Maria Maddalena displayed a nativity in front of its main altar, still life figures in satiny marble, the holy family ignoring who had arrived once more to bow and marvel, offer gifts already given and point to unseen stars, donkey and sheep neither tethered nor free. Alessandro had the idea for Lidia to replace the stature of Mary, draped in white, her lovely hair tumbling from her veil to frame a tranquil expression, the worshippers unaware of her breathing until the soprano had sung Sovrano Mio Bene. The priest finally agreed when he met the girl’s pale eyes, closed lips and immature body, and she was willing–if she had a choice–because her humility would be on display as someone else’s.
Lidia played her part well, even as the church filling with the Christmas Eve congregation breezed through her costume. The altar tapers flickered, smoke floating downwards to assist her performance and any concern that la prima soprano wasn’t the prettiest Alessandro had ever employed.
For the Mass’ entrance procession violins dueled without contest in Sinfonia, the hunchback Lonati soloing unrecognizably with emotion and grace, Alessandro running off with the notes on obbligato harpsichord. His musical if not physical challenger inveigled him back with such fine expression it must be imitated, a perfect opportunity for Alessandro’s virtuosity with the ease of a hawk flying high and low and landing on a pause. Lonati let down his guard, his face gloomy and shoulders sinking. But after a few bars the duo matched their humors again, Lonati’s self-pitying relieved by Alessandro’s company, connecting their past differences for a chordal if short-term agreement.
After the Liturgy of the Word the Cantata resumed, introducing the cast and their story. First the devil in protest and fury then the concertino per un angelo and concerto grosso with Alessandro taking the part of un pastore, Lonati’s strings only encouraging the thoughts of the tenor in arpeggios e adagios.
The soprano at the heart of the performance also rose to the violin’s challenge, her breath strung along on Lonati’s long phrasing and jumping to follow Alessandro’s rapid handling of the keys. As always he enjoyed such alternation and certainly the success of Lidia lifting her head and la Gesùs Bambino from the crib. After the Blessing of the Sacrament, there was Communion and the mass’ last rituals, the congregation still on their knees, the madrigal singers standing first . Bells rang from the tower and interplay of their voices, envisioning and extolling. Belief was sustained in countering ways yet harmonization reached out through the nave and ascended the dome, proclaiming that at least for the life of such music heaven was within reach.
*Presepi Viventi–Living nativity. It is believed that the first living nativity was the work of St Francis of Assisi, in 1223.
Aria from “Ah! Troppo è ver” (1670-1676c.)
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