This year — traditionally, he was born on March 15, 270 — marks the 1,750th anniversary of the birth of the bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, whose relics have been resting in Bari since 1087, equally venerated for his holiness and his intercession to God both in the Greek and Slavic East and in the Latin West: Saint Nicholas of Myra or of Bari (270–350).
While the Vatican Post Office dedicated a stamp to him, we want to honor this anniversary through music and, in particular, with San Nicola di Bari, “oratorio for four voices, with concertino and grosso,” on a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia, composed in 1692 by Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747), best known for having been Handel’s rival in London as an opera composer. This dramatic musical composition, without scenes and costumes, for solo voices and orchestra, on a religious (but extra-liturgical) subject, was performed for the first time in Rome, in the Church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli in Piazza Navona (since 1878 Our Lady of the Sacred Heart), in Lent of 1693. Unlike what happens today on similar occasions on the small screen (not only on television), we find ourselves before entertainment, typical in those days, with the intent of upbringing and formation — in particular, to encourage listeners to walk the path of virtue.
The great Oriental bishop, the defender of the weak, the protector of sailors, the wonder-worker, the protector of children, future Santa Claus (corrupted name of Sanctus Nicolaus), is presented to us here in an almost unprecedented way: a teenager Nicholas who, in his relations with Giovanna; his mother, Epifanio, his father; and Clizio (a fictional character), his fellow student, presents himself as a model of generous obedience and great readiness.
This anniversary offers us the opportunity to make a few references to Bononcini’s luminous oratorio, without pretending to treat it adequately.
A symphony divided into two contrasting movements, a largo and an allegro, introduces the oratorio, which includes two parts and forty-five numbers. Even though there are five tableaux, which follow the classical rhetorical system: exordium (introduction), narratio (narration), confutatio (refutation), confirmatio (confirmation), peroratio (conclusion).
What Stampiglia already places in the first tableau (nn. 2–18), the exordium, is Nicholas’s Christian family; Nicholas is about to leave his parents before going to study in the Middle East. Near the end of the tableau, two duties of mothers, as they are seen in Roman education alongside the paterfamilias, emerge: teaching moral action (Sempre madre amorosa / Con vere leggi ad operar t’insegno, as a loving mother always I teach you to act according to the true laws) and favoring the imitation (dall’insegnamento altrui / Poi saggiamente impara, then you learn from the teaching of others), as l’ape ingegnosa, the industrious bee does, here well described by music; she goes a girar sul prato ameno, wandering over the sweet meadow, draws the precious nectar both da fior, c’hanno il veleno, / Che dal giglio e dalla rosa, from poisonous flowers and from lily and rose.
The second tableau (nn. 19–25), the narratio, presents us Clizio, Nicholas’s libertine friend, played by a contralto, who, with the rhythm of saraband, bursts in Tutto fiamme, e tutto amore, all on fire and all in love, looking for pleasure. Ma qui giunge Nicola, but here Nicholas arrives, and the two engage in a disagreement: Clizio maintains that fallo di gioventù sempre è leggiero, a fault of youth is always light, and Nicholas believes that peccar mai non si deve, / Che peccar mai non lice, one must never sin, because sin is never allowed. Played with the echo of the violin, Nicholas’s aria Il diletto è una sirena, delight is a mermaid, follows, to which Clizio responds farther on: Anche il cielo dimostra il perdono, even Heaven manifests forgiveness, almost wanting to limit the effects of the God’s wrath, well represented musically.
The second part of the oratorio opens with the third tableau (nn. 26–29), the confutatio, in which Nicholas in an intensive and theatrical dialogue rebuts Clizio’s statements. Il diletto?, pleasure?, Clizio asks — Un momento, only a moment, Nicholas replies. Pur ti miro, pur ti godo, I gaze on you, I delight in you. The splendid final duet of Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea (1643) is taken by Bononcini as a starting point for the aria D’un bel ciglio, on a beautiful eyelash, in which Nicholas warns Clizio that the ardent gaze between him and his lovers will be reduced to ashes. Clizio sticks to his position, but Nicholas insists. Upset, Clizio reproaches himself: Anima infida, / Il Ciel ti sgrida / D’infedeltà, unfaithful soul, Heaven scolds you for infidelity.
The fourth tableau (nn. 30–37), the confermatio, represents Clizio’s repentance. The friend who admits: Son gl’interni disastri / Degno tormento a tanti falli miei, the internal disasters are worthy torment to my faults, is reassured by Nicholas: Non niega il Ciel sì glorioso dono; / E già nell’Alma tua giunto è il perdono, Heaven does not refuse such a glorious gift, and forgiveness has already come to your soul. The two are joined by Nicholas’s parents, who see Clizio cry and are satisfied with his conversion. Clizio’s soul is invaded by pleasure; his heart, reached by Raggio eterno, eternal rays, refers us to transverberation, the piercing of the heart by an angel or Christ dear to the mystics. After seeing his friend’s face shine like never before, Nicholas evokes Gli Astri, che in ciel scintillano, the stars, which sparkle in the sky, with the virtuosic echo of a violin.
The final tableau (nn. 38–45), the peroratio, is meant to spur penitents to approach the confessional. Clizio realizes that Nicholas will work wonders, Se in età così acerba, if he in such a young age can repair the souls of others. Giovanna confirms and hopes there is no obstacle (So, che sdegna). Nicholas (Sempre del mio desio) hopes to follow the example di giusti Eroi, of righteous heroes. Epifanio, in his aria (Ancor nel primo albore), reassures everyone that la fede ancora è cieca, / E pur guidar ne sa, faith is always blind, yet she is able to guide. How does Nicholas react Al pensiero lusinghiero, to flattering thought? Gli rispondo che non vo’, I tell him I don’t want to. Whoever renounces earthly pleasures is calmed by Giovanna (Figlio, se in tanta pugna): Ché più colpa non ha, chi è ben pentito, he, who repents well, is freed from sins.
The oratorio ends with a duet — the only one of all the work — between Nicholas and Giovanna, in lively and fast tempo: Quando il Cielo alle colpe s’adira, / Si mitiga l’ira, / Lo sdegno si frange / Da un Cor, che sospira, / Da un’Alma, che piange, when Heaven gets angry over faults, wrath is mitigated, indignation breaks before a sighing heart, before a crying soul. They almost invite listeners to celebrate the mercy of God, which each one is able to experience personally in the Sacrament of Confession — an invitation most appropriate during Lent, not only in 1693.
Massimo Scapin, an Italian conductor of both opera and the symphonic repertoire, composer, and pianist, holds degrees in piano and choral conducting from the State Conservatory of Music in Perugia, in orchestral conducting and composition from the National College of Music in London, and in religious science (magna cum laude) from the Pontifical Lateran University. Massimo appeared as guest conductor and pianist in Europe, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the United States. He was also a Vatican Radio commentator and entertainer. He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.