Until the release of this album, Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was pretty much known only to devoted scholars of the Italian Baroque, and as much for his life story – he became an ambassador entrusted with confidential missions, was rewarded by being made a bishop, and later ascended to such high ranks in the Roman Catholic hierarchy that dignity required him to publish his operas under the name of his secretary (the Vatican did not consider “opera composer” a respectable profession) – as his rarely heard music.
Now, however, the advocacy of Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli – which extends even to the surprising cover photo of her made up as Steffani, bald and dressed as a priest – will put him back in the spotlight. About 80 percent of the arias here have not been recorded before, and the joy of discovery is present throughout. The album gets into an effective rhythmic pattern: fast and energetic showpiece, tuneful mid-tempo aria, highly emotive slow song – that’s probably a wise programming structure as it ensures variety, though this reviewer would be perfectly happy wallowing in just the deeply affecting slow tracks (such as “Ove son? Chi m’aita? In mezzo all’ombreâ€¦Dal mio petto,” from the once lost but thankfully recovered Niobe ) on which Bartoli gets to unleash both her interpretive powers and her most beautiful singing.