Caldara: Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo
PERFORMER: Maria Cristina Kiehr, Rosa Dominguez (soprano), Bernarda Fink (alto), Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Gerd Türk (tenor), Ulrich Messthaler (bass); Schola Cantorum Basiliensis/René Jacobs
‘One of the greatest professors both for the church and stage that Italy can boast’, wrote Charles Burney of Antonio Caldara – yet this is the only one of his 43 oratorios or ninety operas currently available on CD. Burney, though, was right. The work is a revelation and this performance of it outstanding.


The plot is simple: Earthly and Celestial Love declare war, their battleground the heart of Mary Magdalene, asleep as the overture ends. Encouraged by her sister Martha, she rejects the blandishments of Earthly Love, Bernarda Fink, sensuous and warm-voiced, her character gradually transformed from breathlessly seductive temptress to vicious, embittered loser. The virginal purity, and superb singing, of Scholl’s countertenor represents Celestial Love – clever casting. Two further protagonists appear in the second part, Messthaler as a self-righteous Pharisee and Türk the forgiving Christ, unconventionally a tenor.

The outstanding role is that of Maddalena, Maria Cristina Kiehr. Her characterisation is gripping: as the harlot believing herself too guilt-laden for salvation, fiercely casting off the ‘chains’ of sin (vividly ensnaring counterpoint), moved to repentant tears, and quietly jubilant as she is forgiven.


The predictable sequence of recitative and aria masks Caldara’s inventive imagery: a cello obbligato of Bachian ingenuity; a Handelian gavotte to symbolise rejected earthly pleasures; the sublime simplicity of cello, lute and organ as Maddalena is moved to grief. Orchestral colours match the melodic originality: a coruscating overture; doubled violas in poignant, sighing suspensions; vigorous lute and guitar strumming as Earthly and Celestial Loves are joined in battle. All is bathed in what Jacobs describes as an ‘aura of sensual Venetian euphony’ – a life-enriching experience not to be missed.