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At the Pleasure of Mazarin

Ensemble L'Aura Soave
Jessica Gould, soprano
Diego Castelli & Dario Palmisano, violins
Diego Cantalupi, theorbo
Davide Pozzi, harpsichord

Saturday, April 28th, 8:00pm

The Church of St. Jean Baptiste
184 East 76th Street

For more information about the project, including the complete performance schedule, artists' biographies, performance photos, sound clips, texts, translations, and more, please click here.


“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account”
– Machiavelli, The Prince

At the Pleasure of Mazzarin CD Cover

Portrait of Mazarin by Pierre Mignard, c.1658

Seldom loved and sometimes feared, the Italian-born Cardinal who changed French music forever often inspired great jealousy. A Prince of the Church, he shaped one of the greatest Kings in history. Defusing rebellion and crafting a reign through the savvy use of artistic splendor, he left us with a magnificent musical legacy, much of which lies undiscovered to this day in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino was born poor in Pescina and died rich in Paris as Cardinal Jules Mazarin. His Roman Jesuit education and a family connection to nobility eased his rise through the decadent Barberini Vatican to become a papal diplomat. Both fortune and virtue whisked him to France, where he became counselor to the Queen-Regent, mentor to the Dauphin, and an architect of Absolutism. Alternately the clever fox and the mighty lion as required by circumstance, he maintained his hold on power until the end.


Frontispiece of a Mazarinade

Adoration did not follow in the wake of success. At the French court he was mocked for his foreign accent, denounced as an opportunist, derided for his taste in luxury, and dismissed as a crafty disciple of his fellow Italian, Machiavelli. Aware of, but blasé about the endless “Mazarinades,” scurrilous satirical pamphlets which dwelt on various fantastical abominations mostly involving erotic hijinks in the Queen-Regent’s bedchamber, his genius for statecraft was the stuff of understatement rather than charisma, earning him resentment rather than reverence.

After Louis XIII died leaving his throne to a toddler dauphin, Mazarin became the de facto ruler of France along with the Queen-Regent. When various nobles saw the new king’s youth as a ripe opportunity to destabilize the monarchy and seize power, Mazarin deftly squelched them and conceived a system of court protocol so elaborate and exhausting that the nobility remained distracted and neutralized all the way up to 1789.

This performance and recording is as much an exploration of Mazarin’s character through music as it is a selection of discoveries from his collection of favorite composers. The works gathered here – by Luigi Rossi, Giacomo Carissimi, Virgilio Mazzocchi, and Francesco Cavalli – speak of a protean personality, at once profligate and judicious, governed by subtlety yet besotted by luxury, an eager propagandist of the Counter-Reformation utterly unburdened by faith.

Robert Nanteuil Cardinal Jules Mazarin Seated Within the Gallery of his Palace 1659 BW

Gilles Rousselet, frontispiece for the Elogia Iulii Mazarini Cardinalis, 1666

The cardinal who was perceived as arrogant remained a humble servant of the maturing king and France for the rest of his life. Never ordained, Mazarin took his cue from a Counter-Reformation Papal court which used art to stun in the service of war, and followed the lead of French predecessors in linking power and cultural glory. He was learned in the uses of splendor in service of power, and magnificence as the opiate of troublemakers.

The Cardinal-as-Impresario filled the French capital with Italian musicians, organizing performances of works never heard before in his adopted country. Giacomo Carissimi, a devout Jesuit whose Counter-Reformation polemics infuse sacred works with dramatic fire and rhetorical urgency, became the teacher of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a giant of the French baroque. Luigi Rossi, whose breathtaking compositional versatility gave form to both the ethereal incantations of Orpheus and the scorching fury of Gelosia, wrote the first Italian opera ever performed in Paris by invitation of Mazarin – the stunning Orfeo – which served as a model for French operatic composition thereafter. Monteverdi’s former student, Francesco Cavalli, was commissioned by Mazarin to compose Ercole Amante for the wedding of Louis XIV, but due to the theater being unfinished, had his Xerxes performed instead. The cardinal commissioned from Cavalli the Missa Concertata to be performed in celebration of his successful negotiation of peace with Spain.


Click above to view video excerpt from the June 2017 performance of At the Pleasure of Mazarin at Villa Finaly.

Peace is the surprising subject of the volatile Sdegno, campion audace of Virgilio Mazzocchi. We can almost hear the personality of the canny minister himself and his notorious sangfroid in its opening, throwing down the gauntlet with an unequivocal refusal to be baited by the disdain which leads to war. The composer makes it clear, however, that a pacifist piece this is not. By setting the word “peace” on a long and cackling melisma, he paints the very opposite of the picture of serenity. Professing peace while prepared for battle, the short rollicking work is a musical portrait of Realpolitik.

Luigi Rossi’s Gelosia glistens with the tortured fury of the obsessed, wayward coloratura pulsing with envy and barely suppressed rage. Indeed, if we bookend the Mazzocchi Sdegno and the Rossi Gelosia, can we not hear the unflappable demeanor and bemused equanimity of the assured statesman whose very composure drives his foes to madness? Can we not hear the calm of someone so assured in his power that the scurrilous gossip of the jealous is the very confirmation of his own victory?

Gelosia SoundCloud Screen Shot

Click above to hear Gelosia

Moving from chuckle to roar, the Jesuit upbringing that speaks through two Counter-Reformation polemics of Giacomo Carissimi warns of nothing less than the end of the world itself. È bello l’ardire goes back to Greek myth to get the message across. We are told of two who climbed beyond their station, presuming an undeserved place in Heaven – Icarus, who fell out of the sky into the sea when the sun melted his waxen wings, and the Giant Enceladus, who crashed to earth after attempting to scale Mount Olympus. The heart of the obedient, by contrast, is an eagle soaring effortlessly above in heaven, near to God.

Apritevi Inferni envisions the entire world consumed by hellfire, an apocalypse brought on by those who disobey “nature” or the Catholic Church. A precipitous two-and-a-half-octave drop opens the piece and expresses the tortured soul of the penitent sinner, who finds, by the end, the answer, which is that “nature” will unleash a conspiracy against all who defy her, and meet rebellion with the flames of never-ending war. The final section, with its repeated high C’s and relentless supernatural complexity of runs, suggests it was written for a castrato, a man-made voice type invented by the church through the annihilation of manhood. Among the vast inventory of unnatural creations and demands of the Vatican, Carissimi chose perhaps its most bizarre specimen to voice the will of nature.

A very different underworld emerges in two selections from Rossi’s Orfeo. The two main characters of the opera, Orpheus and his bride Euridice, are represented here by two arias that are calm and trance-like, despite the tragedy of their story. Euridice beguiles her husband with the gentle off-beat sway of Mio Ben. We of course know that this doesn’t end well, and after Orpheus loses his bride, he responds with the elegiac sweep of Lasciate Averno, inviting death to claim him as he has now lost all.

LasciateAverno SoundCloud Screen Shot

Click above to hear Lasciate Averno

Rossi’s Orfeo recasts the Orpheus myth with a distinctly Gallic tint. It opens with a military victory for the French army, closes with Mercury declaring Orpheus’ lyre as the fleur de lys of France, and a wish for the long life of Louis XIV. However, perhaps the most intriguing Mazarin connection to this piece is in the Paris performance casting. The leading man himself was an enterprising castrato named Atto Melani, who later enjoyed a career as diplomat and spy, serving secretly and fruitfully at the pleasure of Mazarin.

– Jessica Gould

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Photo of L'Aura Soave by Nathan Smith. Diego Cantalupi, Davide Pozzi, Jessica Gould, Diego Castelli, Dario Palmisano


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