Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741)
Farnace (1727/31) [149.17]
Farnace - Furio Zanasi (baritone)
Tamiri - Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Berenice - Adriana Fernandez (soprano)
Selinda - Gloria Banditelli (contralto)
Pompeo - Cinzia Forte (soprano)
Aquilio - Fulvio Bettini (baritone)
Coro del Teatro de la zarzuela
Le concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
rec. 26-28 October 2001, Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid
NAÏVE OP 30471 [3 CDs: 54.49 + 58.32 + 35.56] 

Vivaldi's Farnace was originally written in 1727 and presented in Venice. Sadly, the materials for this version have been lost. Farnace was praised at the time for its 'sublime' and 'tender' qualities. Vivaldi revived it again in the Autumn in a revised version and presented yet a third in Prague in 1730. Then in 1731 he produced it in Pavia, in another and final revision. Pavia at the time was something of a backwater, its theatre rather overshadowed by the Ducal theatre in Milan. In any event it is this Pavia edition that has been preserved and is recorded here.

The score is one of the best from Vivaldi's late operatic period. In it he has assimilated influences from the latest Neapolitan operas, with extended virtuoso arias. But the music is still recognisably Vivaldi's, especially in the profoundly rich handling of the orchestra. He also includes rather more arias for the lower male voices than was generally the case and is less inclined to the da capo aria-form than his contemporaries.

The libretto is, frankly, a bit of a farrago even by the standards of the time. It was rather cobbled together and based directly on an earlier text. Farnace was first set by Vinci in 1724. The story concerns the invasion of Pontus by the Romans. Pontus is ruled over by Farnace, King of Pontus (Furio Zanasi) and his wife Tamiri (Sara Mingardo). Farnace is at war with the Romans, led by Pompeo (Cinzia Forte). He is driven out of his kingdom. Pompeo is supported by Berenice (Adriana Fernandez) who happens to be Farnace's mother-in-law and hates him. Farnace orders Tamiri to kill herself rather than fall into the hands of the Romans and when she fails to obey him he denounces her. Things are further complicated by Farnace's sister, Selinda (Gloria Banditelli) who has been seduced by Aquilio (Fulvio Bettini), another Roman.

The engine of the opera is the hatred of Berenice. One wonders what Handel would have made of such a wonderfully vengeful character. But the main interest for Vivaldi and Vinci was that the libretto put Farnace and Tamiri into so many terrible situations, thus requiring them to display a wide variety of noble emotions. Vivaldi has responded to this with three hours of glorious music.

This recording was originally released in 2002 on Jordi Savall's own Alia Vox label. As originally recorded, the piece included extra material added to the opera in 1739 for performances in Madrid. Here it is re-issued by Naïve as part of their Vivaldi Edition and has had the extra material (by Francesco Corselli) edited out. The recording was made live at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, conflating two performances. The advantage of this is that the recitatives have fine dramatic impetus, so that they bat along at speed and really sound like drama. The disadvantage, apart from one or two slightly fudged moments, is that the acoustic, as caught on this recording, is rather over-resonant for the opera; though you do get used to it.

The basic problem is that though Vivaldi has responded to the libretto with some fine music, he only really skims the surface of the characters. Too often, when a character is expressing extreme emotions, Vivaldi's music is rather too charming and equable. He writes wonderful virtuoso vocal lines, but rarely manages the sort of simple, pathetic effects of which Handel was capable. Also, too often the main interest is in the orchestra. In fact Vivaldi often treats the voices rather instrumentally and there are moments when you could imagine the voice being replaced by a solo instrument. That said, this was one of the prevailing styles of the time.

This can be illustrated by the final three arias at the end of Act 1. First Berenice sings 'That sword which shed my hapless husband's blood has taught me to be cruel'. Then Tamiri has a simile aria about a fierce lion and finally Pompeo has another simile aria about a tempest. Vivaldi gives Berenice and Tamiri wonderful toe-tapping arias which barely scratch the surface of their anger. And Pompeo's aria is a glorious evocation of a storm, which says more about Vivaldi's ability to conjure such music from the orchestra than it does about Pompeo's state of mind.

The opera receives a glorious performance from the cast. All of them sing very strongly and, as I have said, they deliver the recitatives in a very involving fashion. Time and again I was struck by the rich inventiveness of Vivaldi's orchestration and by the talented virtuosity of the singers. The title role is written for a baritone and Zanasi gets plenty to do including a lovely aria in Act 2 which includes a ritornello highly reminiscent of Winter from 'The Four Seasons'. In the aria, Farnace realises that his son's death - in fact only presumed death - is his fault. It is a wonderful piece and performed like this, is highly arresting.

Don't buy this opera if you want to have an intensely involving dramatic experience. By the best baroque opera seria standards Vivaldi fails to deliver this. His characters do not really develop and his music only skims their emotions. But if you want three hours of top quality Vivaldi, then please don’t hesitate. It’s full of musical gems and listened to out of context, can provide much enjoyment, particularly as it receives such a strong performance from Savall and his cast.

Robert Hugill