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Singing with the nightingale: a Scarlattian allegory for the vocal duet


A Youth and Two Girls Singing. Jacob Jordaens (Flemish, Antwerp 1593–1678 Antwerp). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Date: Tuesday 30 September 2014
Time: 2:30-3:15
Venue: The Rex Cramphorn Studio, Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney. Studio Level 1 of the John Woolley Building, A20, and is accessed from Manning Rd, down the concrete steps opposite the Old Teachers' College. View map.


Rosalind Halton: presenter and harpsichordist
Guest singers: Nicole Smeulders and Anna Sandström

Programme of Music by A. Scarlatti

Duets for soprano, contralto and continuo :
'Questo silenzio ombroso' (attrib date 1707)
'E our vole' (copy dated 1706)

Anna Sandström will sing part of a cantata
 'Il Rosignuolo' (the Nightingale)

The baroque vocal duet cantata occupies a special place in sung relationships, nowhere more so than in those of Alessandro Scarlatti. The Scarlatti family was one of singers and cantata composers. Not only Domenico – the great keyboard composer – was noted for his singing and cantata compositions, but his two older sisters Cristina and Flaminia were acclaimed performers who travelled with the family in the early 1700s. Flaminia is also known to have composed cantatas. Several of Alessandro’s chamber duets take the form of a dialogue of ‘companions’ who empathize with each other’s mixed fortunes in love; it is possible that these formed part of the Scarlatti sisters’ repertoire. But Alessandro Scarlatti’s most sought after duet in the eighteenth century was also his most sombre: ‘Questo silenzio ombroso’ (This gloomy silence’) dated in one source ‘Urbino 7 September, 1707’. The date coincides with a stay by the Scarlatti family in Urbino during which Cristina made a turbulent but unsuccessful plea to be admitted to the convent. The duet focuses on the image of the ‘solitary nightingale venting her pain’: a poignant parallel to Cristina placed in isolation at the convent of Santa Caterina in Urbino. The rapport between the caged singing bird and the young woman in emotional isolation is a subject set often by Scarlatti, significantly at this critical time in the life of the family.

The historical context of Scarlatti’s duets of 1706/7 is the starting point for this study, which also explores perceptions of the nightingale as an expert singer touching the emotions of human listeners. In Questo silenzio ombroso, empathy through duet singing operates on at least three levels: that between the singers (likely, members of the Scarlatti family), and also a complex and tenderly expressed relationship between composer – the family patriarch – and the characters whose music ends in stoic resignation, ‘the silence of death’. The blurring of boundaries between nightingale and protagonist expresses another facet of empathy in this duet – the harmony between the nightingale’s song and that of the sorrowing soul.

Our study of this music through performance proposes to capture the metaphor of the cantata as a dialogue embodying the companionship of sisters through an unspoken ordeal, rather than as the duet with sacred overtones for soprano and countertenor commonly heard in modern performances. At the same time another vocal relationship is implicit – that between human singing and the song of the nightingale.

Rosalind Halton specialises in bringing to performance little-known and often previously unheard works from the vast catalogue of cantatas and serenatas by Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti. She estimates she has been responsible for bringing back into the recorded repertoire up to 20 per cent of the composer's rediscovered pieces. She is an accomplished harpsichord player and a foundation member of the baroque ensemble Chacona. Her recorded works include several releases through ABC Classics, including her seminal CD of Scarlatti cantatas and serenatas, recorded in part at the University of Newcastle. She has performed with many leading ensembles, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

"Performance has always been the most important part of the process of reviving historical works for me," she says. "Bringing music to a new audience is the ultimate goal."