Since Cain killed his brother Abel, their story has resonated throughout Western culture. In past centuries, composers, writers and artists have repeatedly resurrected this episode from the Bible.
At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 17 in Sprague Memorial Hall, Yale Voxtet will perform 18th century composer Alessandro Scarlatti’s interpretation of the Cain and Abel story — his oratorio “Il Primo Omicidio.” Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, the music director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, will lead Saturday’s performance.
Voxtet is an eight-member vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of music written before the 19th century. The ensemble comprises students in the early music track of the Master of Music vocal program, which is shared between the School of Music and the Institute of Sacred Music.
“I think one of the strengths of Voxtet, especially when paired with a wonderful conductor like Nicholas McGegan, is its ability to bring life, excitement and drama to works like Scarlatti’s oratorio,” said Harrison Hintzsche MUS ’20, a member of Voxtet.
“Il Primo Omicidio,” which translates as “The First Murder,” premiered in 1707. The piece is an oratorio, or a sacred work for voice and orchestra performed without costumes, scenery or acting.
Adrienne Lotto MUS ’20, a member of Voxtet, noted that performing the Scarlatti oratorio is an opportunity to examine an often-overlooked composer.
“[‘Il Primo Omicidio’] is not done very often. I had never heard of it before I came here,” Lotto said. “I think a lot of people don’t know much about [Scarlatti], but he’s a very dramatic composer.”
Like many oratorios from its time period, Lotto said, “Il Primo Omicidio,” takes a story from the Old Testament and gives it a “Christian treatment” suitable for 17th and 18th–century Italy. She noted that in Scarlatti’s oratorio, Abel appears as a Christ figure through his representation as a shepherd who is sacrificed and miraculously comes back to life.
Lotto said the ending of the oratorio also uses a Christian revision.
“I think it’s kind of a funny ending in tone because it ends very cheerfully,” Lotto said. “There’s a happy duet between Adam and Eve [saying] ‘Oh it’s okay because we’ll have more children and eventually someone will come and redeem humankind,’ which is pretty typical from what I have been learning of oratorios of this time.”
There are six vocal roles in Scarlatti’s oratorio. Members of Voxtet mentioned that portraying Scarlatti’s biblical figures in a nuanced way is challenging.
Lotto said that Scarlatti writes her character, Abel, as somewhat one-dimensional.
“He’s very pure and the music is pretty uniformly … beautiful and placid,” Lotto said. “So I think the challenge is to make it not boring.”
Edward Vogel MUS ’19, who will sing the role of Lucifero, the Devil, noted that he faces a “host of challenges” in his role of “trying to portray evil itself.”
Most singers in the production face similar challenges. Lotto noted that Cain’s music is predominantly “grumpy and agitated” and that Eve has mostly “mopey, sorrowful music.” She emphasized that all of the singers have to figure out how to “not fall completely into the categories that the composer has set for [the characters].”
McGegan assisted Voxtet members in making their characters interesting.
“[McGegan] has this wonderful way of helping us — and in effect, the audience — relate to the characters and the music, which could otherwise feel removed or archaic or ‘high-brow,’” Hintzsche said. “He has a humility and excitement to him that is directly reflected through the music that he makes.”
Vogel noted that McGegan is “one of the most respected early music conductors and experts” and that Voxtet is “so lucky to be working with such amazing people.”
Lotto highlighted McGegan’s fame within the field of oratorios. She also praised his communication in rehearsals.
“He’s really funny,” Lotto said. “He’s great at putting what he wants into a lot of different metaphors and ways that we’ll understand it.”
Hintzsche said that he thinks audiences will appreciate Scarlatti’s “unique and beautiful musical setting” of Cain and Abel’s story.
Saturday’s concert is free and does not require a ticket.
Eli Mennerick | firstname.lastname@example.org