Soleil noir: Arias for Francesco Rasi

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Program: #22-25   Air Date: Jun 20, 2022

Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro joins us with his recent recording dedicated to the composer, singer, poet and maybe murderer Francesco Rasi (1574-1621).

NOTE: All of the music on this program features the ensemble I Gemelli directed by our guest, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. This is on the Naive label and is V 5473.. For complete information about this ensemble:

Francesco Rasi: Soleil Noir - Naive: V5473 - CD | Presto Music

From MusicWeb International: Were such terminology appropriate, Francesco Rasi could certainly be described as one of the ‘star’ tenors of the early years of opera. Indeed, Caccini refers to him as “il famoso Francesco Rasi” in his important work Il nuovo musiche of 1602. In 1600 Rasi sang the role of Aminta in Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, on the occasion of its premiere at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. In 1607 he sang the title role in Monteverdi’s Orfeo when it was premiered at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. In between those dates, in 1602, he was a soloist in Caccini’s Euridice, again at the Pitti Palace and in 1608 he was also a soloist in Marco da Gagliano’s Dafne in Mantua.

Insofar as Rasi is remembered nowadays it is largely for these contributions to early opera. Carol McClintock in an article published in 1961 (‘The Monodies of Francesco Rasi’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 14:1, 1961, pp. 31-36) observed that previous discussions of Rasi had treated him “solely [as] an expert performer”. But Rasi was a man of several talents. As McClintock herself points out, Rasi was also an accomplished instrumentalist, playing the theorbo/chittarone, as well as keyboard instruments. He was also a poet and a composer. As a composer his output included two books of solo songs, Vaghezze di musica per una voce sola (Venice, 1608) and Madrigali di diversi autori posta in musica dal S. Francesco Rasi (Florence, 1610). He is known to have written at least one opera, Cibele, ed Atti, for the 1617 wedding festivities of Ferdinand Gonzaga and Catarina de’ Medici but this appears not to have been performed and the music is now lost, though Rasi’s libretto survives. His last collection of music, Dialoghi Rappresentavi, was published in 1620. In the previous year his collection of poetry, La centra di sette corde, was published in Venice.

Rasi was born in Arezzo, the son of minor nobility in that fascinating city. He is known to have studied at the University of Pisa and to have been studying music with Giulio Caccini in 1594. In the same year he may have been among those who travelled with Carlo Gesualdo to Ferrara for his second marriage, to Leonora D’Este. During much of the 1590s he seems to have been in the service of Ferdinand I, Duke of Tuscany before, in 1598, taking up a position at the Mantuan court. There was, however, another side to Rasi, beyond the sensitive composer and poet. Like at least two other artistic figures of much the same generation – Carlo Gesualdo (born in 1566, some eight years before Rasi) and the painter Caravaggio (three years older than Rasi) – Francesco Rasi had a propensity for scandalous violence. Notoriously, Gesualdo killed his first wife and her lover, while Caravaggio was repeatedly involved in acts of violence, more than one of which had fatal consequences. He seems to have been responsible for a killing in Milan, around 1591. Later, when based in Rome, in 1606 he killed a known criminal, Ranuccio Tommasoni, in a ‘duel’. Fortunately, the long history of Caravaggio’s violent life need not concern us here (a perceptive, well-informed account can be found in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, 2010). More immediately relevant is the fact that in 1610, in Arezzo, Rasi and a number of accomplices were sentenced to death for the murder of an important servant of his stepmother’s and the attempted murder of the stepmother herself. The protection of his Gonzaga patrons was enough, however, to make Rasi’s escape possible. Later the sentence was annulled (on condition that Rasi did not return to his native Arezzo).

The tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Swiss-born of Chilean parents) clearly, and understandably, finds Rasi a very interesting figure. In an earlier recording (his third for Naïve) Gonzalez Toro was the central figure in a version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, singing the title role (as Francesco Rasi did) and also ‘conducting’ the work. In doing so, although the orchestral playing by a much larger version of I Gemelli than appears on the current disc was vivacious and colourful, he put the voice at the centre of the work, but as a servant of the text rather than as a display of virtuosity. When Gary Higginson reviewed Orfeo, he closed by saying “I cannot recommend this performance enough and although there are several others to be much enjoyed, this new one should become a classic in due course”.

On this new CD of “arias by and for Francesco Rasi” the brief list of performers also contains the following information: “Mathilde Etienne CONCEPTION”. Etienne is a soprano, who sang the role of Proserpina in the aforementioned recording of Orfeo. If Ms Etienne contributed to the ‘conception’, the intellectual idea underlying this album, then it is only fitting that the associated CD booklet should (besides the usual biographies and the texts and translations) largely consist of a joint interview – conducted by Claire Boisteau – with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Mathilde Etienne. Unlike many such interviews this one is genuinely illuminating, so I hope I may be forgiven some fairly lengthy quotation from it. Etienne’s observations, for example, include the perception that “Rasi learnt monody and declamation from Jacopo Peri, and the more instrumental side of florid singing with Giulio Caccini. He represents the synthesis of these two schools”. She elaborates this statement in noting that “In Florence he met Cavalieri, the inventor of the oratorio, but also the great music theorist Vincenzo Galilei […] He then went on to spend several years with Monteverdi in Mantua. Also resident there were Salomone Rossi, the creator of modern violin music, and Marco da Gagliano […] His music seems to concentrate all the artistic tendencies of his period […] he represents both the tutelary figure of Orpheus, the traditional Renaissance figure associated with the ideal, with beauty and reason – an ideal in the tradition of Raphael – and also at the same time another, more sombre current exemplified by Caravaggio and his luminous paintings which are suddenly invaded by darkness”. Comments by Gonzalez Toro throw light on many of the decisions taken with regard to performance style, as when he says “We sometimes arranged the pieces for our own performing forces, because our approach is to highlight the voice, with a fairly discreet continuo, as if we were in an intimate chamber music session. I wanted to ensure that the inflections of the text, the famous recitar cantando, could be heard perfectly, and to put the emphasis on the poetry rather than the colours of an instrumentarium”. He closes the interview with a somewhat challenging assertion, “It shouldn’t be forgotten that at that time the majority of the composers were singers, and the majority of these singers were tenors. Today, most conductors are continuists, which was not at all the case in Rasi’s day: the conductor was both the composer and the singer. The work we have been doing for several years goes in this direction: getting back to the singer as the source of the inflections, the tempo and the indications he gives to the continuo. It’s a way for us to assert the different conception we have of this music”.

Listening to many recordings of the vocal music of this first generation of baroque composers provides one with a good deal of aural pleasure, but too often the texts being sung are so far subsumed to the pursuit of that pleasure that the listener’s mind isn’t always fully engaged. Listening to this disc, however, the hearer’s mind is fully engaged with the text, because Emiliano Gonzalez Toro’s voice and mind are. While never pedantic, Gonzalez Toro’s attention to the text is always exact, always concerned to communicate its meaning clearly, in cooperation with the work of the composer rather than at the cost of it. To take, initially, a single example, we might consider the way he sings one of Rasi’s compositions – the opening track, ‘Indarno febi (il pianto d’orfeo)’. The text here is by a distinguished poet, Gabriello Chiabrera (1552-1638). As Orpheus laments the loss of Eurydice the melismas on ‘lusinghevol’ in the phrase “lusinghevol vento” (‘flattering wind’) and in the evocation of the sound made by the water’s movement in the following line “E tra bell’erbe di ruscelli’il suono” (‘And amid the lovely grass the murmuring stream’) Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is – as Rasi would surely have wanted the performer to be – at least as much concerned with meaning as with ornamentation. In another of Rasi’s settings – track 11 (‘O che felice giorno’) – one hears very clearly Gonzalo Toro’s understanding of the art of the poet (who seems to have been Rasi himself this time). The text is a fairly simple celebration by a lover of his lady’s return after an absence. It is a poem in four six-line stanzas and is fittingly set and sung at a relatively rapid tempo as it builds to a joyful conclusion. What I particularly admire in this performance is the subtlety with which Gonzalez Toro stresses the rhymes, sufficient to make the strophic form clear but not so much as to hinder the seemingly irresistible forward momentum of the lover’s happiness. Thomas Dunford’s lute accompaniment is also perfectly judged.

One contemporary – the Florentine composer and organist Severo Bonini (1582-1663) who, like Rasi studied with Giulio Caccini – described Francesco Rasi’s voice as “sweet and robust” and those very words are also fitting as a description of Emiliano Gonzalez Toro’s voice. His tenor has, at times (in, for example, the opening of the ‘Lamento d’Apollo’ from da Gagliano’s La Dafne), a certain baritonal edge to which one might reasonably apply the term robust; on the other hand the lovely tenderness of his version of Giulio Caccini’s ‘Amarilli, mia bella’ certainly merits the epithet ‘sweet’. Elsewhere (e.g. tracks 8, 9 and 17) the sweetness and the robustness are joined in a richly productive symbiosis.

The CD isn’t, however, wholly devoted to Rasi (only 6 of the 17 tracks are compositions of his) or, indeed, to Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Gonzalez Toro and Mathilde Etienne have put together an attractively varied programme. Many of the composers based in Florence and Mantua at the same time as Francesco Rasi are represented here and listened to at a sitting the disc has enough variations of mood and style to maintain and reward attention. In this regard the presence of three purely instrumental tracks plays its part. Thomas Dunford (track 7) presents a thoughtful and beautifully executed improvisation on the familiar patterns of the passamezzo; gambist Louise Pierrard and harpist Flora Papadopoulos join forces in a ravishing interpretation of Andrea Falconieri’s much played piece ‘La suave melodia’ (though I can’t remember ever previously hearing it played by viola da gamba and baroque harp); Ms. Papadopoulos has the stage to herself in a performance of Gesualdo’s ‘Gagliarda del principe di Venosa’, a piece which captures perfectly the courtly and romantic side of the troubled prince of Venosa.

I find this disc thoroughly enjoyable – though I will mention two slight reservations. I find the eloquent clarity of Gonzalez Toro’s singing both striking and rewarding. He throws a refreshing light on the real importance of the text in this early baroque vocal music (which makes it gratifying that both original texts and English translations are provided). My reservations: while on the whole I welcome the presentation of these pieces in an intimate chamber-like fashion, I do miss the larger instrumental sound absent from the performance of the piece from Marco da Gagliamo’s Dafne; elsewhere I find Gonzalez Toro’s account of Monteverdi’s ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ rather on the hurried side, insufficiently varied in tempo to do justice to the changing emotions in the text. But these are minor negatives weighed against my very positive response to the album as a whole.

I feel that it is incumbent on me to offer a few explanatory thoughts on the album’s rather enigmatic title. My initial association was with the sol niger, a term used by medieval alchemists to designate an early stage in the alchemical process, but I soon decided that that was not a very relevant line of thought. A far more relevant approach is suggested by the presence in the CD booklet of the text of a sonnet by the French poet Gérard de Nerval (1808-55), ‘El Desdichado’. Nerval seems to have taken his title from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1820), in which there is a Spanish knight referred to as ‘El Desdichado’ – the Spanish phrase meaning ‘the dispossessed’ or ‘the unfortunate’. In the first four lines of Nerval’s poem the speaker defines himself in related terms:

Je suis le Ténébreux, - le Veuf, - l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie:
Ma seule Etoile est morte, - et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

[I am the shadow, the widower, the unconsoled, the Aquitanian prince with the ruined tower: my only star is dead and my star-strewn lute bears the black sun of Melsncholy.] – (prose translation by Anthony Hartley).

In lines 9-11 of Nerval’s poem the speaker again endeavours to clarify his own identity:

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus?... Lusignan ou Biron?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J'ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène...

[Am I Love or Phoebus? … Lusignan or Biron? My brow is still red from the queen’s kiss; I have dreamed in the cave where the siren swims…] – (Hartley).

In the last three lines of the poem, the speaker understands his own identity in more conclusive fashion:

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l'Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d'Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

[And I have twice crossed Acheron victoriously: tuning in turn on Orpheus’s lyre the sighs of the saint and the fairy’s cries.] – (Hartley).

The widower (Veuf), whose lost wife was his only star (seule étoile), in writing his poem finds himself to be a lesser Orpheus. The basic aptness of Nerval’s poem (and its use of the phrase “soleil noir”) to Francesco Rasi, the singer who created the role of Orfeo in Monteverdi’s great opera is, I hope, clear. Much more might be said on this subject, but this is not the place to say it.

Glyn Pursglove


Francesco RASI (1574-1621)
1. Indarno febi (il pianto d’orfeo) [2:08]
2. Filli mia, filli dolce [1:52]

Giuseppino del BIADO ( ? – 1616)
3. Fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo (‘La Mantovana’) [3:07]

Marco da GAGLIANO (1582-1653]
4. Lamento d’Apollo (from La Dafne) [6:21]

Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618)
5. Amarilli [2:46]

Jacopo PERI (1561-1633]
6. Un di Soletto [2:52]

Thomas DUNFORD (b.1988)
7. Passamezzo [lute improvisation) [2:52]

Francesco RASI
8. Ardo, ma non ardisco [4:18]
9. Messagier di speranza [2:19]

Andrea FALCONIERI (1585/6-1656)
10. La suave melodia [2:22]

Francesco RASI
11. O che felice giorno [3:30]

Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
12. Gagliarda del principe di Venosa [2:46]

13. Dalla porta d’orionte [3:79]

Sigismondo d’INDIA (c.1582- before 1629)
14. Amico, hai vinto [4:42]

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
15. Quel sguardo sdegnosetto [2:03]

Francesco RASI
16. O pira, o chiara stella [2:39]

17. E vivere e morire [2:01]

Composer Info

Francesco Rasi (1574-1621), Giuseppino del BIADO ( ? – 1616), Marco da GAGLIANO (1582-1653], Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618), Jacopo PERI (1561-1633], Thomas DUNFORD (b.1988), Andrea FALCONIERI (1585/6-1656), Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613), Sigismondo d’INDIA (c.1582- before 1629), Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)

CD Info

Naive V 5473,