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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Atenaide, RV702 (1728) [3:39:55]
Sandrine Piau (soprano – Atenaide/Eudossa); Vivica Genaux (soprano – Teodosio); Guillemette Laurens (mezzo – Pulcheria); Romina Basso (mezzo - Varane); Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto - Marziano); Paul Agnew (tenor - Leontino); Stefano Ferrari (tenor - Probo)
Modo Antiquo/Federico Maria Sardelli
rec. April 2007, Teatro della Pergola, Florence, Italy. DDD
NAÏVE OP30438 [3 CDs: 76:13 + 75:27 + 68:15]

Fortunately, it’s become something of a truism that Vivaldi is actually under-represented on disc; and that the profundity, breadth and vibrancy of arguably the greatest portion of his oeuvre, the operas, are only now being appreciated. Largely from the collection of manuscripts and partial manuscripts preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, nearly fify opera libretti associated with nearly seventy productions have been identified. Although known for his instrumental music in our times, it was Vivaldi’s  operas in settecento Italy that made his name, and with which he was most closely identified throughout (northern) Italy and the Habsburg empire. A moment’s reflection on the sense of drama, tension, movement, conflict and excitement in most of Vivaldi’s purely instrumental music goes a long way towards explaining just why the relatively new but nevertheless established genre of dramma per musica should have so appealed to him.
How lucky we are, then, to have the Vivaldi Edition with the drive and enthusiasm of its director, Alberto Basso, working so productively with Naïve. Indeed this latest offering, Atenaide, is a world première recording. Already we’ve had 100 CDs; it’s planned to keep this pace up over at least the next ten years and supplement the discs with concerts, festivals, films/multimedia and literary events.
Atenaide was first performed at the end of 1728 in the Pergola theatre in Florence as a means – not successful, in the event - of salvaging its financial viability. This was somewhat against the wishes of impresario Luigi degli Albizzi: Vivaldi’s relations with him were not good. Indeed the apparently quite generous terms of the composer’s contract limited him to fulfilment of the music alone… no say in the staging, performers or libretto.
The libretto was in fact by the fashionable Venetian poet, Apostolo Zeno (1668-1750). It revolves around the Byzantine empress, Athenais, who converted to Christianity as Eudocia/Eudossa in the fifth century CE, and the twisted relationships between her former pursuer, Varane; the emperor Teodosio; his sister, Pulcheria; Marziano (enamoured of Pulcheria) and Probo (rejected by Pulcheria).
The chief rivalry is between Teodosio and Varane in their affections for Atenaide/Eudossa. Although she has come to marry Teodosio and is in no doubt about the rightness of that decision, the latter engineers (encourages, even) the (to Atenaide unwelcome) advances of Varane for political and strategic alliances. The token of her decision, the presentation of a jewel to whomever she favours, is subverted by Probo. Only after Atenaide is subsequently banished and kidnapped does Probo atone for his conduct and arrange a happy ending.
So somewhat formulaic but with multiple opportunities for splendid singing. At the first performance Vivaldi did somehow manage to get his protégé, Anna Girò, into the Florentine company to perform Pulcheria; that’s the role here taken by Guillemette Laurens, keeping up the tradition: outstanding singing. Atenaide also marks the culmination of Vivaldi’s refinement of a number of operatic elements… the established Venetian idiom, the galant style, innovations in orchestration and vocal writing, the fully-embedded da capo aria. This is really the first of his more mature operas; and obviously one about which Vivaldi was sufficiently enthusiastic to revise it in the early 1730s.
Notable arias adapted from other of his operas include Varane’s ‘Tanto lieto ho il core in petto’ (Act I); ‘Nel profondo cieco orrore’ at the start of Act II; Teodosio’s ‘M’accende amor’ (Act III) and the lovely ‘Te solo penso ed amo’ by Pulcheria a couple of numbers later. Written freshly for Atenaide and for the Florentine public at the first performances were ‘Son colpevole’ (Act II), full of astute psychological insight; ‘Infausta reggia addio’ and ‘In bosco romito’ (Act III) for Atenaide herself. Not an aria, but an innovative monologue, the same character’s ‘Qual demone, qual furia’ also in Act III is particularly worthy of attention.
The action of Atenaide is relatively swift, the momentum almost unrelenting. And the forces assembled by Federico Maria Sardelli seem to be well aware of the need to make what could be in some ways a rather slight plot as intriguing and enticing as possible. They do this well without resorting to the spuriously spectacular or sensational. Is it fanciful to think that additional inspiration has come from the fact that this recording was made in the same theatre, with the same acoustic and something of the same atmosphere as that in which it was first performed nearly 280 years ago?
Certainly – as Sardelli, a Florentine, writes in his short note in what is an excellent and informative booklet (although the text is set a little too close to the edge of the page at times) – the singers were chosen for the ways in which their voices can be demonstrated to ‘succeed’ their eighteenth century counterparts. His advocacy of the utmost respect for Vivaldi’s scoring and markings (Sardelli cites the highly individual use of pizzicato but forte strings in Act III, scene 8, for example) is very welcome. The integrity of this recording is one result. Moreover, it’s a highly desirable result.
Indeed this is one of the more successful and pleasing opera recordings from an already celebrated series. The singing is consistently excellent – but then it should be with some of the world’s most accomplished and celebrated Baroque and Vivaldi specialists… Piau, Genaux, Laurens, Stutzmann and Agnew. All of these sing (and indeed perform: the sense of drama doesn’t let up for a moment) with conviction, excitement and passion that it seems would be hard to better. Sandrine Piau (Atenaide/Eudossa) is in full command at all times; listen to her ‘Son colpevole a’ tuoi lumi’… passion, control, flair, judgement. Guillemette Laurens (Pulcheria) sings with an almost boisterous enthusiasm; without rushing such arias as ‘Là sul margine del rio’ enthral and excite. She lends a rare sense of presence to the recording. Notably, the recitatives are sung particularly sweetly throughout – a bridge from Handel to Mozart… every word is clear, every nuance communicated.
The ensemble Modo Antiquo is splendid – clear, clean, expressive of every turn in emotion throughout the opera. The conducting is brisk yet sensitive and the feeling of something special yet easily attained in the way the whole is conceived and executed is exemplary. True this will be unfamiliar music to most. Nevertheless, it’s vintage Vivaldi and deserves just this kind of performance. Nothing is missing. Nothing superfluous added.
Mark Sealey


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