There seems to be a strongly growing
popularity for Vivaldi as a composer of operas (see review
listing below). Since his 'rediscovery' in the 1960s Vivaldi
has mainly been
a composer of instrumental music. It wasn't very different
in his own time. He had secured a strong reputation as
brilliant performer on the violin and as a composer for
his own instrument, when he attempted to establish himself
a composer of operas in Venice. That wasn't easy, as the
musical taste in the city was pretty conservative.
Musical taste wasn't the only
problem he faced. Arsilda was Vivaldi's third opera, written
to a libretto by the prolific writer Domenico Lalli. Lalli
didn't want his name associated with the libretto as he believed
Vivaldi had destroyed it by his music. On the other hand
it is equally clear that when the opera was performed it
wasn't the kind of work Vivaldi had in mind. The inquisitors
which the Council of Ten had appointed to exert political
and religious censorship over opera libretti had refused
to give their permission for a performance of the original
version. Vivaldi had accordingly to change it considerably.
In this recording an attempt has been made to reconstruct
the opera as it was originally conceived by Vivaldi. Antonio
Maria Sardelli, in his programme notes, states that the original
conception is considerably bolder and more interesting than
the later version which was performed in the Sant'Angelo
theatre in 1716.
The tribulations around the first
performance didn't prevent the opera from becoming popular.
It seems to have been performed in Germany and in Prague.
Several manuscripts have been found all over Europe with
arias from this opera, sometimes in arrangements, which were
used in performances of other operas. And it looks as if
Vivaldi was pleased with his work as well, as he often used
material from it in other vocal and instrumental works.
The story is as complicated as
most libretti from the 17th and 18th century, with a
lot of disguise and gender-bending. Arsilda is the queen
Pontus and is engaged to Tamese, prince of Cilicia. He
to be dead, and as the crown of Cilicia is reserved to
a male, his place is taken by his twin sister Lisea,
pretending to be her brother. That causes problems when
to marry. Another complication is that Lisea has been
promised to Barzane, king of Lydia, who is in love with
is looking for revenge as Tamese had taken away Arsilda,
and invades the country. But he is captured thanks to
Tamese, disguised as a gardener. In the second act Lisea,
as Tamese, confronts Barzane with his unfaithfulness
towards her. He sees the error of his ways and decides
to beg Lisea
for forgiveness. In the meantime Tamese reveals to Arsilda
that her 'fiancé' is his sister Lisea. Cisardo, the twin's
uncle, has overheard his confession and decides to take action.
In the third act the real identity of all characters involved
is revealed. The opera ends with Tamese and Arsilda becoming
king and queen of Cilicia, and Barzane returning as
king to Lydia, with Lisea as his queen.
Having heard several of Vivaldi's
operas I'm still not certain what to make of them. Are they
transcriptions, as it were, of what Vivaldi actually had
in mind for instrumental performance? Or is it the other
way round, and are his instrumental works translations of
what he actually meant to be sung? Vivaldi certainly was
a composer with theatrical instinct, and his operas and instrumental
music are dramatic in nature. There are also similarities
in the way instruments are used to create an atmosphere.
A good example is the aria that closes the first act, 'Io
son quel Gelsomino' (I am like that jasmine flower) which
is very reminiscent of, for instance, the 'Four Seasons'.
In fact, there are quite a number of arias in which images
from nature are used, like the butterfly, the nightingale
and the turtledove. Here Vivaldi is at his most inspired.
For many years Handel’s examples
were the most often performed and recorded operas of
the baroque era. But although there is an increasing
in Vivaldi's operas I doubt whether they present any
real competition to Handel's works. Although I am not
an opera buff and don't care very much about the storyline
of baroque operas - which are often rather ridiculous
- opera arias can be very moving, especially as Handel's
From what I have heard of Vivaldi's operas I haven't
experienced the emotional involvement Handel is able
to arouse. I listen to Vivaldi's arias with admiration
I am often
more impressed by the instrumental accompaniment than
the vocal part. But so far I haven't heard much to compete
with Handel's arias in emotional content. This could
by what according to experts is one of Handel's main
assets: his deep understanding of the human psychology.
Having said that there is plenty
to enjoy here, and lovers of Vivaldi's music will find much
which sounds familiar. Antonio Maria Sardelli has brought
together a fine cast, which shows a good understanding of
Vivaldi's music and the style of the baroque era. That in
itself doesn't guarantee a really good performance. And I
find this recording somewhat disappointing. As far as the
singers are concerned, almost all have pleasant voices, except
the tenor Joseph Cornwell whose slight tremolo I find pretty
annoying. He certainly impresses in the way he masters his
virtuosic arias, which contain a lot of coloraturas. But
as there are clear accents in the instrumental parts, there
are none in his interpretation of the vocal line and this
makes his arias little more than a flood of notes.
The main problem is what looks
to be a lack of involvement, in particular in the recitatives.
Some people believe that the recitatives in baroque operas
are very boring, and this recording adds fresh fuel to that
prejudice, I'm afraid. The tempi are generally too slow,
there is a lack of rhythmic freedom, and the interaction
between the protagonists is often very static. One hears
very little anger, fear, agitation - it just goes on and
The best performance in this recording
comes from Lucia Sciannimanico, who gives a very sensitive
interpretation of the role of Lisea. Sergio Foresti is totally
convincing as Cisardo. The roles of Mirtinda and Nicandro
are also well realised. Simonetta Cavalli's performances
are a little uneven, whereas Nicky Kennedy is disappointingly
bland as Barzane.
The orchestra is brilliant, always
playing at a very high level, bold and vivid. But sometimes
I feel they miss the point. For instance, the strong
accents in Arsilda's aria 'Io sento in questo seno' (act
at odds with its content: "I hear my distressed heart,
weep and sigh in my breast that is only filled with sorrows".
There is a lack of real sensitivity here from the orchestra.
To sum up: this is an interesting
recording, and one can only thank Mr Sardelli for recording
this reconstruction of the original version of this opera.
The singing and playing is generally good, but that can't
make up for the lack of drama and emotion.
Johan van Veen
Recent Vivaldi Opera Reviews
Orlando Furioso - Naïve OP30393 review by Christopher
Motezuma - DG 477 5996
review by Michael Cookson
- cpo 777 096-2 review by Michael Cookson