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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Arsilda, Regina di Ponto - opera in three acts (RV 700)
Elena Cecchi Fedi (Mirinda), Nicky Kennedy (Barzane), Alessandra Rossi (Nicandro) (soprano); Simonetta Cavalli (Arsilda), Lucia Sciannimanico (Lisea) (mezzo); Joseph Cornwell (Tamese) (tenor); Sergio Foresti (Cisardo) (bass)
Coro da Camera Italiano; Modo Antiquo/ Federico Maria Sardelli
rec. July 2001, Chiesa del Santissimo Crocifisso, Barga, Italy. DDD
CPO 999 740-2 [68:55 + 57:07 + 40:10]

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 considered a composer of instrumental music. It wasn't very different in his own time. He had secured a strong reputation as a brilliant performer on the violin and as a composer for his own instrument, when he attempted to establish himself as 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 of Pontus and is engaged to Tamese, prince of Cilicia. He is thought 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 Arsilda wants to marry. Another complication is that Lisea has been promised to Barzane, king of Lydia, who is in love with Arsilda. He 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, disguised 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 interest in Vivaldi's operas I doubt whether they present any real competition to Handel's works. Although I am not exactly 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 operas demonstrate. From what I have heard of Vivaldi's operas I haven't yet experienced the emotional involvement Handel is able to arouse. I listen to Vivaldi's arias with admiration and 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 well be explained 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 on.
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 I) seem 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


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Recent Vivaldi Opera Reviews
Orlando Furioso - Naïve OP30393 review by Christopher Howell
Motezuma - DG 477 5996 review by Michael Cookson
Tito Manlio - cpo 777 096-2 review by Michael Cookson



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