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Antonio VIVALDI (1678–1741)
Sinfonia (Griselda, 1735) [5.17]
Ombre vane, inguisti orrori (Griselda, 1735) [4.40]
Agitata da due venti (Griselda, 1735) [5.43]
Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade (Tito Manlio, 1718) [7.01]
Sinfonia (Ottone in Villa, 1713) [4.32]
Gelosia, tu gia rendi l’alma mia (Ottone in villa, 1713) [2.01]
L’Ombre, laure, e ancora il rio (Ottone in villa, 1713) [6.49] (1)
Ferma, Teodosio (L’Atenaide, 1728) [9.12]
Sinfonia (Tamerlano/Il Bajazet, 1735) [6.38]
Non mi lusinga vana speranza (L’incoronazione di Dario, 1717) [5.22]
Se mai senti spirati sul volto (Catone in Utica, 1737) [8.55]
Se in campo armato (Catone in Utica, 1737) [6.28]
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Lilian Mazzarri (soprano) (1)
Brandenburg Consort/Roy Goodman
rec. St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 19-21 April 1994. DDD

Vivaldi claimed to have written over ninety operas, librettos to some fifty survive along with scores to around twenty. Despite that fact that we think of him as an orchestral/instrumental composer, during his life-time Vivaldi was famous both as an operatic composer and an impresario. He not only wrote works, he ran theatres, booked singers and staged operas by other composers. His travels around Europe were frequently operatic in impetus. In this, of course, he had much in common with his contemporary Handel.
It is only relatively recently that Vivaldi’s operas have started to appear regularly on CD. But it is still the case that complete recordings of his operas and recitals of his operatic arias remain something of a novelty.
Perhaps when we have more exposure to his mature operas, we can make an assessment of Vivaldi’s merits as a composer of dramatic works. Undoubtedly he was popular in his day, but in the 18th century popularity in the operatic sphere had much to do with the composer’s ability to write arias which flattered the singers and showed up their abilities in the best light. A prime example of this is Hasse, whose operatic writing is fluent, sometimes flashy, and attractive but which shows little of Handel’s dramatic genius. It is also worth bearing in mind that some of Handel’s finest dramatic works were pretty unpopular when first performed
Many of Vivaldi’s faster arias use melodic figurations which strike me as being rather instrumental in texture and shape. Maybe it is just that I am more familiar with his instrumental writing. But certainly his faster arias require a considerable degree of virtuoso technique. Carestini, the castrato for whom Handel wrote Ariodante, specialised in this type of instrumental type figuration, evidently popular in Italy at the time.
To do justice to this type of aria requires a secure technique and an ability to get far beyond the notes themselves. Enter, then, Emma Kirkby, a singer who is well placed to do justice to this repertoire. This disc was recorded in 1994 and has now been reissued at mid-price on Hyperion’s Helios label. If you are curious about Vivaldi’s operatic output, then look no further.
Kirkby’s voice on record has taken on a remarkably ageless quality, reminiscent perhaps of Isobel Baillie. In fact the two have quite similar types of voice and Baillie was still singing in public, quite creditably, at the age of eigthy. Here, recorded some thriteen years ago, she is in fine form. Just very occasionally the tessitura of the pieces seems to give her pause and the very highest notes lack the freedom of earlier recordings. But even so, Kirkby far outshines many of her contemporaries.
The recital mixes sinfonias from the operas with operatic arias. The sinfonias are crisply and enjoyable played by The Brandenburg Consort under Roy Goodman. These are lively and striking pieces, definitely crowd-pleasing material.
Kirkby sings arias from seven different operas, judiciously mixing the more up tempo, virtuoso numbers with the slower, more expressive numbers. One of Kirkby’s virtues in the faster, bravura passages is that she retains her innate sense of beauty and musicality. With a singer like Cecilia Bartoli I often gasp at the bravura virtuoso feats whilst quailing at the sound quality of the voice itself; whereas with Kirkby, her singing nearly always sounds right. Granted she is not perfect, but pretty nigh so - and so expressive.
Kirkby’s light vocal timbre works extremely well in such languishing, sighing numbers as Sei mai senti spirarti sul volto from Catone in Utica, in which the lyrical vocal line is enlivened with much musical panting and sighing. But she is perfectly capable of martial fervour, producing some wonderful trumpet tones in Se in campo armato from the same opera.
The arias are given without any secco recitative, so we must take their dramatic context on trust. Only in the long excerpt from L’Atenaide, Ferma, Teoodosio do we get more of a feel for Vivaldi’s handling of longer scenes.
Goodman and his orchestra provide vivid accompaniments, with Vivaldi often giving them some fine opportunities with his lovely orchestrations. In the effective, rather accompagnato-like aria, L’ombre, l’aure e ancora il rio from Ottone in Villa, the singer’s references to shadows and breezes echoing her grief, are nicely reflected in the orchestra with a solo violin and burbling flutes.
As far as the recital overall is concerned, this is most enjoyable. It would be possible to imagine some of these arias given by a rather more dramatic voice. But in the main, Krkby has chosen the arias well and provided a vivid, lively and well structured programme.
Regarding Vivaldi’s abilities as a purely dramatic composer, the jury is still out for me. I find him slightly too reliant on instrumental textures in the vocal lines. And whilst the arias are effective and extremely attractive, they do not seem to plunge the heights and depths the way Handel can. In this way, Vivaldi seems to be closer to Hasse than to Handel - or Bach for that matter.
But don’t let me be the final arbiter in this. Do go and buy this lovely recital at the new attractive price and judge for yourselves.
Robert Hugill


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