Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the great figures of Baroque opera, but the Scarlatti name is better known because of his son Domenico’s many keyboard sonatas. The Paris Opéra’s revival at the Palais Garnier of the elder Scarlatti’s Il primo omicidio from 1707 is accordingly most welcome, even though the work is an oratorio rather than an opera. Why revive an oratorio rather than an opera when so many operas are out there to choose from? A likely answer is that Il primo omicidio behaves very much like a Scarlatti opera but is shorter and easier to put on.
It also has a catchy title, “The First Homicide,” which grabs your attention in a way that few Baroque opera titles do. You wouldn’t necessarily associate the title with the Bible, although its subject is the Cain and Abel story from the book of Genesis. The oratorio is also familiar to aficionados of Baroque music. Two recordings exist, including one from 1998 led by René Jacobs, who conducts the production under review here, and it has enjoyed performances since, though this is apparently the first staged one.
If you guessed that this oratorio might resemble works by Handel, who was from the next generation of composers and was significantly influenced by Scarlatti, you would be partly correct. But the similarity is to Handel’s operas, not his oratorios, which belong to a very different tradition. Lacking a chorus, Il primo omicidio consists of a succession of da capo arias, and a few duets, connected by recitatives.
If you guessed that this oratorio might resemble works by Handel, who was from the next generation of composers and was significantly influenced by Scarlatti, you would be partly correct.
Many of Il primo omicidio’s arias would be at home in a Handel opera, although they tend to be shorter and are less apt to move to the dominant or another new key in the A section. Still, there is much harmonic variety, with quite a few arias in minor keys and the frequent use of the Neapolitan sixth chord, which takes its name from its prominence in works by Scarlatti and his contemporaries in Naples. Many arias use the popular and expressively versatile siciliana (12/8) rhythm.
The plot is slender. Cain, the older son of Adam and Eve, kills his younger brother Abel out of jealousy after the Lord favors Abel’s sacrificial offering over Cain’s own. The libretto, presumed to be by Antonio Ottoboni, fleshes the story out admirably, while also making points about religious doctrine. As Jacobs observes in the program notes, the musical language of Il primo omidicio is less “self-important” and more “austere” than that of a Scarlatti opera, to reflect what he calls the “mysticism” of the text.
Romeo Castellucci, who designed the staging, sets, costumes and lighting, has a history of idiosyncratic productions, with ideas that often have a tenuous relationship, at best, to the work in question. Here, as seen at the premiere on January 24, he is on relatively restrained behavior, particularly in the first part of the oratorio, which plays out against a hazy visual background and finds the characters, dressed in simple modern dress, often moving in a stylized manner. Castellucci’s fondness for the absurd is evident when a traditional altarpiece descends to the stage upside down. The two sacrificial offerings are represented by modern humidifiers that emit streams of vapor resembling smoke.
In the second part of the oratorio, Cain appears with a child, a possible reference to the brothers in childhood. But it soon becomes clear that every character is now paired with a child as a silent doppelgänger who mouths the words while, often from the orchestra pit, the singers sing. This trick seems pointless, even silly, but the children’s presence proves endearing by the end and accords with the Lord’s grant to Adam of a new line of descendants.
The cast, while not matching that of Jacobs’s recording, performs ably. As Adam, Thomas Walker brings a sure technique to one of the oratorio’s few bravura arias and sings handsomely elsewhere. Understandably, Eve, the concerned mother, has some of the more poignant arias, and Birgitte Christensen’s rich mezzo-soprano handles them expressively.
Kristina Hammarström’s leaner mezzo meets the challenges of Cain’s multiple arias of remorse and atonement, and Olivia Vermeulen’s bright soprano nicely suits the ingenuous Abel. You might not imagine the Voice of God as that of a countertenor, but Benno Schachtner sings authoritatively. The bass-baritone Robert Gleadow is amusingly diabolical as the Voice of Lucifer.
As is his wont, Jacobs beefs up the original orchestration by adding winds and percussion, as well as a few special effects. But even when a trombone doubles the vocal line, the stylishly Baroque performance he draws from the period instruments of the Ghent-based B’Rock Orchestra is not seriously disrupted. Jacobs also employs a large continuo group, with instruments ranging from bassoon to baroque guitar; the latter strums away noisily in an aria for Lucifer. Jacobs was also the conductor on the only occasion I’ve seen a Scarlatti opera performed by a major opera company, Griselda at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2000. The Opéra’s revival of Il primo omicidio ought to encourage others to take up the cause.