LU SANTU BELLO
(The Beautiful Saint)
cantata in three tableaux
A baroque-contemporary opera
Why, in 2008, talking about the story of a saint who lived in the 3rd century after Christ?
The story of St. Januarius includes all the elements a composer should desire to create a work artistically valid and with the potential of a strong impact on the audience:
• two opponent characters, who incarnate the essence of good and evil (St. Januarius /Jesus and Timotheus/Pontius Pilatus)
• the crucial, present issue of the violence against the weak and the innocent
• the sublime, the supernatural, the miraculous
• the transfiguration, that neutralizes the fear of pain and death
This is not properly a sacred opera. The story of St. Januarius is the pretext to talk about us, our violence, our fragility, our need of certainties.
Naples and the miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro’ s blood
St. Januarius is the patron saint of Naples (South Italy). According to legend St. Januarius was a handsome man of noble birth. He became bishop of Benevento and, on the outbreak of the persecution by Diocletian, he was sentenced to death by Timotheus, governor of Campania, on account of his profession of the Christian religion.
The cult of St. Januarius is attested historically in Naples as early as the 5th century. Two phials preserved in the cathedral are believed to contain the blood of the martyr. The relic is shown twice a year. On these occasions the phials are brought out and held by the officiant in view of the assembly. Prayers are said by the people, begging that the miracle may take place, while a group of women, known as the "parenti di San Gennaro" (relatives of St. Januarius), make themselves specially conspicuous by the fervor, and sometimes, when the miracle is delayed, by the extravagance, of their supplications.
Most of the times the substance contained in the phials liquefies, and the Neapolitans consider this phenomenon a supernatural manifestation and a symbol of the saint’s benevolence and protection.
The libretto : sources and poetic itinerary
I began to be interested in the story of St. Januarius on the occasion of the 1700 th anniversary of the martyrdom, in the year 2005.
I gathered an extensive documentation of popular sources in Latin and Neapolitan old vernacular. They deeply caught my imagination.
The repertoire of invocations, excited prayers, sacred texts dedicated to the saint, is itself extremely rich of dramatic charge. It is the basis of my libretto.
For the composition of this work I used sources different for dating and language.
There are four alternating linguistic levels: old Neapolitan, Latin, Italian, English.
The text is organized in three tableux. It describes a parabola that starts and ends with a miracle; in the central core are represented the trial and the death of the saint. This is the general structure of the libretto:
• Eruption of the Vesuvius
• Invocation and intervention of the saint
• St. Januarius, confined in the prison of Pozzuoli, invokes the liberating death
• Timotheus, his prosecutor, confirms the death sentence
• St. Januarius, figure of Christ, tells his accusers about the trial and conviction of Christ
• Faith descends from heaven to comfort St. Januarius and predicts the miracle of the blood melting
• Invocations of the congregation and miracle
Reference sources for the I Tableau
The reference sources for the first tableau are anonymous invocations of the popular tradition, and sacred and paraliturgical texts.
The incipit “Jam flammam” is taken from a Hymn of matins. In the Latin sequence, recited until a few years ago during the celebration of the 19th September, I found the fragment “Tolle dexteram”.
The Cantata starts with the apocalyptic scenario of the eruption of Vesuvius, with the terror of people, the prayers for the intervention of the patron saint.
For the invocations to the Madonna I used some popular verses which are very lyrical:
Colomba de lu cielo (Dove of the heavens)
Colonna de lu Paraviso (Column of Paradise)
and some fragments from the old Litanies of the Blessed Virgin:
These Latin verses are always given to the Soprano, in her high register and sometimes without accompaniment.
All the first picture is rich in contrasts. It is conceived as a long, exited prayer that moves from the rarefied atmosphere of the invocation to the Virgin to the desperation and the cry of the crowd, with sudden rises of the orchestra and the choir in fff.
Reference sources for the II and III Tableau
There are four sources for the second and the third picture:
1. The poetic text of Clemente Filomarino “Il Trionfo della Fede” (The Triumph of Faith) in the versions of 1794 and 1797. In 1794 this libretto had been set to music by D. Cimarosa. The first part of the II tableau up to the entrance of Timotheus, and most of the III tableau are taken from “The Triumph.”
2. Chapter two of “The Master and Margherita” by Bulgakov, re-elaborated and proposed in English and Italian translations.
3. “Passio secundum Johannes”
4. Live recordings of prayers and popular invocations from the celebration in the Cathedral.
I wanted to treat with reserve the matter of martyrdom, telling about it through the inward torments of the executioner (Timotheus/Pilatus). I intended to make the story of St. Januarius topical as paradigm of the violence in all ages against the weak and the innocent.
The second tableau starts with the text of Clemente Filomarino. The selected fragments reproduce the original text in Italian eighteenth-century language.
The dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilatus is taken from “The Master and Margherita” by Bulgakov. I selected some passages and I created a reduced version, suitable to the Cantata.
I decided to insert passages in English for three aesthetic and expressive reasons:
• The free mix of dialect, Latin and Italian that we find in the popular sources.
• A modern way to translate the passage from the Aramaic to the Greek present in the text of Bulgakov.
• A composing technique that – together with the alterations of the voice of the actor – intensifies the sensation of delirium and suffering of Pilatus.
For the third tableau, besides the text of Filomarino, the score includes a live recording of prayers and popular invocations from the celebration in the Cathedral.
Three subjects – the Soprano solo, the Actor, the Choir – give voice to seven different roles: Jesus, St, Januarius, Timotheus, Pontius Pilatus, Narrator, High Priests, Greek Choir.
The choir assumes different roles. In some passages it has a commentary role, as the Choir in Greek tragedies; in other passages it becomes a character or the narrator.
I decided to use the timbre of dramatic Soprano for the character of St, Januarius/Jesus to evoke the voice of castrati, so crucial in eighteenth-century cantatas.
The role of the executioner Timotheus/Pilatus is always given to the narrator. The part of St, Januarius /Jesus is always sung.
Great flexibility is required from the performers, who have to interpret different roles to create this scene of imaginary theatre, with sections that recall the old baroque cantatas and others near to the modern musical.
The parts in which the saint is represented are the closest to the tonal language.
For the moments richest in pathos – the invocations, the excited dialogue with the executioner Timotheus/Pilatus, the wait for the blood to melt – partially aleatory sections and more extreme vocal techniques (the cry, the sudden glissando, the whispers of the orchestral players) are used.
For the Finale, as I mentioned above, I used live recordings of the prayers, the singsongs, the clamour of the crowd and the applause, once the miracle happened in the Cathedral of Naples. The selected fragments have been elaborated with audio editing software and inserted in the score. They are a precious and irreplaceable document to understand the heart of the extraordinary rite that occurs twice a year in the city of Naples.