Plutone e Proserpina
for soprano, contralto, strings and basso continuo
ed. Michael Talbot
Edition HH, HH497 FSP, Launton, 2020 (pbk, £35)
ISMN 979 0 708185 07 9
Little is known about Diogenio Bigaglia (1678-1745), an obscure Venetian composer. Michael Talbot provides a short biography in an English introduction with a German translation by Burgi Hartmann. Born on the island of Murano, Antonio Bigaglia was a contemporary of J. S. Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. As the third son of Bernadino, a celebrated maker of mirrors, he did not join the family business but joined a Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in 1694, receiving the name Diogenio Bigaglia.
Here, surrounded by the sons of noble and wealthy families, his musical talent as an organist and composer flourished. His compositions (it is unclear how many are extant) include vocal chamber works, three concertos, numerous sonatas, five oratorios and some elaborate vocal settings for use at Mass and Vespers. More information is available in Talbot’s article, ‘Vivaldi, Bigaglia, Tartini and the Curious Case of the “Introdutione” RV Anh. 70’, in Studi Vivaldiani, vol. 20 (2020). Bigaglia’s cantata Plutone and Proserpina is of high quality; his little-known status as a composer may be attributed to his secluded life and to the lack of printed publications beyond a single Opus 1, a set of 12 sonatas for melody instrument and continuo.
In this cantata Bigaglia exhibits an ability to convey the emotions of the characters in musical terms. The story is one of courtship: based on a text by Antonio Ottoboni, it focuses entirely on the two characters, Plutone and Proserpina. Wishing to take Proserpina to the underworld and make her his wife, Plutone has abducted her. She is, understandably, a reluctant bride but finally accepts her fate. Moods range from the enticing wooing of Plutone to Proserpina’s agitated rejection of him; from the anguished chromaticism of the conversational recitatives to a gentle minuet, a duet in which they pledge fidelity to one another. Also notable is Bigaglia’s use of the strings, which interact with the voices rather than simply doubling them. Such was his skill that, in his day, he was even compared with Handel by Johann Adolph Scheibe.
Plutone and Proserpina is well presented in this new edition, the print being clear and the music well laid out. The clear, succinct ‘Editorial Method’ at the end of the volume provides valuable advice for performers, while facilitating a score uncluttered by editorial suggestions for ornamentation. It thus allows for a range of interpretations from ‘notes on the page’ to the improvisation of the skilled performer. Talbot’s realisation of the unfigured bass is particularly useful: it gives the basic chord progressions necessary for a straightforward performance while allowing more experienced continuo players the freedom to embellish according to taste or occasion.
Bigaglia uses old-style (modal) key signatures in the manner of Corelli. The term ‘modal’ here refers not to the Medieval-Renaissance system of Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian etc. but rather to the seventeenth-century system of tuoni ecclesiastici. The cantata’s modal key signatures belong to the period in between modality and modern diatonic tonality: they mainly comply with the ‘Harmonic Tones’ set out by Angleria, Banchieri and Bononcini in their theoretical treatises – these were still being used by J. S. Bach in some of his chorales. D (no key signature) is Tone 1; G (one flat) Tone 2; F (one flat) Tone 6; G (no key signature) Tone 8; C (no key signature), Tone 5. This leaves B flat (one flat) and E flat (two flats) as Pietro Pontio’s transpositions of the old Tone/Mode 5.
The Harmonic Tones were accompanied by quite strict rules of composition, as I have described in ‘Music and Ideas in 17th-century Italy: the Cazzati-Arresti Polemic,’ Outstanding Dissertations in Music from British Universities, Garland (1988). Thus, Proserpina’s aria no. 5, Son tra l’unghie inique e sozzi (‘I am clasped by the evil, foul claws’) has a final note F (Tone 6). Her agitation is conveyed by the aria’s fast speed and extended melismatic writing for both herself and the strings. Her final aria, Dileguatevi, sparite, Dense tenebre d’Averno (‘Dissipate, vanish, dense darkness of hell’), is another dramatic melismatic piece.
Plutone and Proserpina, which Michael Talbot describes as a Serenata, comprises a series of da capo arias and duets. Linking these displays of virtuosity are recitatives which are ascribed no tonality. Rather, Bigaglia cleverly uses them to achieve smooth links between arias of different tonality. All the recitatives are chromatic, some intensely so, reflecting the emotional turmoil of the characters.
Who might have performed these solo roles? Within a monastery, might they both have been taken by castrati who, with their enlarged chests, would have had the breath control to cope with this extended melismatic writing? Or was the cantata commissioned by a secular patron for performance in the city? This is an interesting work, cleverly constructed, well presented and with a strong story-line that features plenty of dramatic contrast. Talbot has uncovered a composer who had the skill to convey that contrast in musical terms. It is to be highly recommended for a chamber group of competent singers and players who want to explore something new.
We are grateful to theThe Consort for permission to reproduce this review.