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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Orlando Furioso (1727) [182:40]
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Orlando, contralto), Jennifer Larmore (Alcina, mezzo-soprano), Veronica Cangemi (Angelica, soprano), Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero, counter-tenor), Lorenzo Regazzo (Astolfo, bass-baritone), Ann Hallenberg (Bradamante, mezzo-soprano), Blandine Staskiewicz (Medoro, mezzo-soprano), Choeur "Les Éléments", Ensemble Matheus/Jean-Christophe Spinosi
Recorded in June 2004 in the Eglise Abbatiale de Daoulas, Bretagne, France
NAÏVE OP 30393 [3 CDs: 70:38 + 66:21 + 45:41]
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In a moment when the "great" recording companies are ever more enchained to their narrow concept of what constitutes a "viable commercial product", let us be grateful that there are still smaller organizations around willing to prove that the classical product still has life in it. Painstaking thoroughness and sheer love seem to be the guiding factors here – you only have to look at the booklet to see that. Detailed notes (in French, English and Italian) on the operas in the Vivaldi Edition, on the circumstances behind the composition and early performances of Orlando Furioso, on the reconstruction of the score and on ornamentation, plus biographies and photos of the performers and the full libretto (also in three languages). In short, nothing has been stinted.

Of course, all the world knows Vivaldi as the composer of innumerable and often inspired and original concertos. Those with a taste for the baroque will surely know that his religious works are often greater still. So how do his operas strike our modern ears?

Well, it has to be said – and this goes for a lot of baroque opera, obviously – that it would surely be a strange person who lowered himself into his easy chair, put his feet up and settled down for a nice evening of recitativo secco in a somewhat archaic, highly poetic Italian which even native speakers might have to strain to follow. In an imaginative staging – and Ariosto’s famous work certainly allows plenty of scope – it could yet hold the stage, the recitatives providing a rich and lively framework for a succession of arias in which Vivaldi explores the whole gamut of baroque expressivity, from Orlando’s furious outbursts to "Sol da te mio dolce amore" which, with its flute obbligato, must surely be one of the most beautiful slow arias in baroque opera. Furthermore, in large sections of Acts 2 and 3 Vivaldi goes a stage further, providing some orchestrally accompanied recitatives and creating long stretches of narrative in which accompanied recitative, secco recitative, miniature arias and fully developed arias alternate to carry the action forward in a kaleidoscope of varied pacing. With the benefit of hindsight we may wish he had gone further still and composed the whole opera that way, but there is plenty of great operatic writing to be enjoyed here.

From the word go, the performance makes you sit up. The string concerto brought in as an overture has a jabbing, rasping attack from the strings and a continuo that hurls itself percussively at the listener’s consciousness. With upfront tempi and steep, nervous crescendos and diminuendos seeking out contrast in every phrase, this "historical" Vivaldi actually has an extraordinarily modern, disco-music feel to it. This same almost fanatical care for every tiniest phrase is also to be heard in the recitatives in which the selection of continuo instruments alternates in rolling waves of colour while the singers are encouraged to vary their pace and timbre as well as adopt an extreme histrionic style. The ravings of Orlando, as presented by the outstanding contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux who, if her scenic presence is equal to her vocal presence must be quite something to watch, suggest, more than anything old, the music theatre of Luciano Berio and the earlier Peter Maxwell Davies.

And then the ornamentation. The notes explain that (according to the philosophy adopted here), in the repeat of a da capo aria the vocal line can be completely rewritten, respecting only the original harmonic scheme, in order to show off the full range of the singer. Here I am not yet fully convinced, since the baroque age also believed in the doctrine of the "unity of the affects" and it seems to me to introduce a foreign element if a singer who has so far sung the aria within a precise vocal range suddenly starts shooting off to stratospheric high notes or leaping up and down just to show she can do it.

Another important element, also touched on by the booklet, is the choice of the singers. It can’t have been easy to team up a soprano, three mezzo-sopranos, a contralto and a counter-tenor with sufficient variety of voice-types to keep the characters distinct, yet it has been achieved. All the singers are good; I think I would have recognized Jennifer Larmore’s star-status even if I had not known it, but Lemieux and Jaroussky both cover themselves in glory and I hope to hear more from the others in future. I note that Larmore uses a deliberately nasal style of voice production in this music (her "Os" in the lower range come out as harsh "Us") which she doesn’t employ in later composers and it doesn’t always sound perfectly natural, but it’s a thrilling performance all the same.

So, what is the final verdict? At first I was undecided; undecided as to whether the fanatical search for a nervous, pungent and modern presentation was ultimately thrilling or just wearing. The dividing line between a baroque opera brought wonderfully to life and a baroque opera smothered with over-interpretation is a fine one and I was, as I say, undecided at first.

What made my mind up for me was the disc of extracts under Claudio Scimone which arrived for review at the same time (full details are given separately). This reminded me that you never achieve anything in art if you don’t risk all, and Scimone risks nothing. His well-upholstered string band takes on an unsuitably palm-court air – or shall we say that he was a child of that tributary of Italian culture that produced the Giazotto-"Albinoni" Adagio – and he belongs to that school of musicians who think that all a conductor has to do in baroque music is to set a tempo and keep it going. Many of his tempi are very staid beside Spinosi, but it is actually in the arias where they take similar tempi that the differences are most revealing; Spinosi takes extreme solutions in his phrasing and his dynamics, but he is saying something, constantly, while Scimone is not.

Another curious aspect of Scimone’s performance is that there is no overall policy of ornamentation; each singer apparently comes along with his/her own ideas and is allowed to do them (and if they have no ideas, this is permitted too). So from Marilyn Horne (a risk-taker) we get extravagant ornamentation on the lines of the Spinosi performance; Valentini-Terrani ornaments very little but provides whopping cadenzas before the da capo sections of her arias (oddly enough, she even does this when the da capo itself is cut!); de los Angeles provides modest and tasteful ornamentation; Kozma provides a whopping cadenza and modest and tasteful ornamentation; the others sing it as it’s written. Surely the conductor’s first task in an opera is to settle for a common interpretative stance which all must obey?

There are, of course, some noted singers of the day to be heard. Marilyn Horne is always extraordinary, and it may be noted that she has an aria, "Fonti di pianto", not included in the Spinosi performance. Lucia Valentini-Terrani had a magnificent voice, inherently suited to this type of music – a pity she didn’t work with a conductor like Spinosi. Lajos Kozma is best remembered, perhaps, for his Lohengrin under Leinsdorf, but he also took an interest in baroque music and appeared in Harnoncourt’s 1969 "Orfeo". His aria here is actually rather attractively done, if we allow that a tenor should be singing the part at all. Then we have three well-loved singers who were getting bit long in the tooth by 1978 and evidently felt that the modest charms of baroque opera might not strain them overmuch. Nicola Zaccaria’s aria is cut to a minute and twenty-one seconds, but it’s quite enough really. The idea of hearing the sublime "Sol da te" from Sesto Bruscantini after Jarrousky’s exquisite performance is not enticing; actually he sings quite neatly and sincerely but it just isn’t the voice for the job. Victoria de los Angeles is another matter; her lovely timbre is still fresh-sounding and voice for voice I would prefer her to Veronica Cangemi; for her admirers, and those of Horne and Valentini-Terrani, the disc might yield some interest, but really it all sends me back to the Naïve set. This latter may be an extreme example of modern baroque interpretation but it is not afraid to take risks and should be heard by all lovers of baroque opera and of Vivaldi. It should particularly be heard, I would say, by those who already have the Scimone recording and are tempted to think they may not need another.

Christopher Howell

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