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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 -1741)
Tito Manlio opera in three acts (1720) [185:00]
Tito: Nicola Ulivieri (bass-baritone)
Manlio: Karina Gauvin (soprano)
Servilia: Ann Hallenberg (mezzo)
Vitellia: Marijana Mijanovic (contralto)
Lucio: Debora Beronesi (mezzo)
Decio: Barbara di Castri (mezzo)
Geminio: Mark Milhofer (tenor)
Lindo: Christian Senn (bass-baritone)
Academia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. Sala del Refettorio di S.Vitale of the Museo Nationale of San Vitale, 27, 30 October 2004
NAÏVE OP30413 [3 CDs: 63:16 + 60:08 + 61:33]

It’s an oft-quoted remark, I know, but here’s yet another example of "London Bus Syndrome"; ... wait for years and ... nothing ... then two come at once.

As it happens Vivaldi’s "Tito Manlio" has waited nearly three decades for any recording, let alone an ‘authentic’ one. Now in addition to the discs under review CPO have issued a rival by their ‘Vivaldi team’, Modo Antiquo and Federico Maria Sardelli (CPO 777 096-2). Although a colleague will review these discs I do have some experience of Sardelli’s approach to the composer having purchased their earlier issue of "Arsilda – regina di Ponto" (CPO 999 740-2).

Ottavio Dantone is one of several scholar/performers entrusted with Naïve’s compendious ‘Vivaldi Edition’, which will cover the collection of the composer’s manuscripts to be found in the National University Library in Turin. It will therefore explore a number of Vivaldi’s operas as well as instrumental, choral and orchestral music.

"Tito" was a sort of relaxation after the pressures of writing for the Venetian stage, being designed for performance at the Mantuan court of Prince Philipp of Hessen-Darmstadt, governor of the city. Indeed it’s dedicated to his bride; although the plot of family feuding, emphasised by the peculiar sadistic anger of its principal, seems an odd choice for the encouragement of nuptial bliss! Perhaps, just as well, the bride-to-be called the wedding off even before she had passed the city walls, although true to the old maxim, the show still went on.

Typical of the rather tortuous plot constructions of the time, the usual complications of various love interests are over-arched by the theme of conflict between duty and honour. Manlio is sent by his father Tito to parley with Geminio, leader of the Latins. Although previously allies with the Romans, the Latins have rebelled and threatened Rome when the city refused to appoint a Consul from their ranks. Whilst in the Latin camp, Geminio taunts Manlio, and in the resulting combat is killed. On returning to the city Manlio is confronted by Tito who feels he has no option but to punish his son for disobeying instructions. He condemns him to death. A complex web of love, honour and military revolt eventually leads to reconciliation. No matter ... when the opera is served by such drive, intelligence and colour its vexatious contortions seem to matter much less than usual.

Indeed Dantone’s orchestra, Accademia Bizantina, may be familiar to you from other distinguished issues, since they are frequent collaborators with Andreas Scholl on record. However here they share centre-stage since, important as the singers are, one of Vivaldi’s major contributions to the operatic form is the wealth of colour, texture and experiment he draws, particularly from his instrumental ensemble.

The conductor is very aware of this facet of the composer’s genius and seems to do his utmost to emphasise it, without exaggeration, including the accompanied recitatives. Since these are quite extensive his approach really pays off. The drama is kept pulsing along, and with it the interest of the listener.

To illustrate the variety and the quality of Vivaldi’s invention, and Dantone’s response to it, let us briefly overview Act 2.

Near the opening we find a short but fascinating aria "Dimprovviso riede il riso" for Vitellia and Servilia – yes, two characters. Whilst the section is brief, it is an excellent example of Vivaldi gently stretching the boundaries of musical taste. We are in 1719 after all, a time when the "Doctrine of the Affections" reigned supreme.

A little later Manlio’s aria "Se non v’aprite al di" exhibits fabulous horn playing (Academia Bizantina’s Ermes Pecchinini one presumes), which is followed shortly afterward by Lindo’s rage aria "Rabbio che accendesi". Vivaldi eschews all the wind instruments but nevertheless makes a spectacular tumult with simply the complement of strings.

In the arietta "Dar la morte a te, mia vita" we again have Vitellia and Servilia singing in an aria, on this occasion one verse apiece but to different words, which is followed in quick succession by the rousing "Combatta un gentil cor", (Let a noble heart fight), which is the signal for unleashing the trumpets – and what trumpets!

Decio’s impassioned aria for his friend Manlio, "Non che con morira" (No he shall not die), marks a change of direction, with a main theme broadly reminiscent of Bach. Despite Decio’s persuasion Nicola Ulivieri, as Tito, is implacably opposed to such pleas in a splendid example of characterful singing ... yet even his resolve bends to allow Servilia to visit Manlio in prison, following her beautiful aria "Andro fidea, e sconsolata"; the flow of gentle entreaty marked by a beautiful flute, strings and archlute accompaniment.

And this is but one of three acts; acts where the wonderful playing of the orchestra is reinforced by an equally distinguished contribution from the singers. Although it really is invidious to pick out soloists in such a fine cast, mention must be made of both Ann Hallenberg and Karina Gauvin, whose ‘straight’ singing whilst fine enough, is excelled in the more technically demanding passage work. "Liquore ingrato’, one of Servilia’s arias, is a real highlight. This sort of quality, allied to the intelligence behind it, provides rich rewards throughout.

Whilst not directly comparing Naïve’s issue with Sardelli’s new recording, I have nevertheless taken time to match this newcomer against the, now slightly venerable, Philips discs conducted by Vittorio Negri (446 332-2, recorded in 1979 – CD issue 1995).

Despite utilising pretty much the same text Negri negotiates the score, with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra, in just under four hours, necessitating four discs. Dantone takes just over three hours and his recording is contained on three CDs. Whilst this speaks volumes for differences in overall approach, much of the vocal work in the earlier set is very accomplished, Julia Hamari (Servilia) and Birgit Finnila (Vitellia) being worthy of special mention. It is also interesting to note, as a sideline, that a certain Jeffrey Tate is listed among the continuo players!

Despite its qualities Negri does seem, in direct comparison with Dantone, rather statuesque in quality, yet I would not put it lightly aside. There is a dignity in his approach that is not unwelcome ... this is a plot centred on a Roman Consul and the exercise of the rule of law after all!

Nevertheless I have to report that Naïve have a real gem of a recording here, which genuinely gripped my attention. Having been much taken with Sardelli’s "Asilda" I will try and hear his new Tito, but frankly, it will have to be exceptional to supplant this set. Banish any lingering thoughts that this is simply some sort of "museum reconstruction". This is living breathing drama – at least as presented here. Very strongly recommended.

Ian Bailey

 



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