BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Antonio VIVALDI (1678–1741)
Ottone in Villa - Dramma per musica in three acts (1713)
Cleonilla, loved by emperor Ottone – Maria Laura Martorana (soprano)
Ottone, Emperor of Rome – Tuva Semmingsen (mezzo)
Caio Silio, a handsome young man in love with Cleonilla – Florin Cezar Ouatu (counter-tenor)
Decio, Ottone’s confidant – Luca Dordolo (tenor)
Tullia, a foreign woman in love with Caio (abandoned by him for the love of Cleonilla) disguised as Ostilio, Cleonilla’s page, with whom Cleonilla is in love – Marina Bartoli (soprano)
L’Arte dell’Arco/Federico Guglielmo
rec. live, Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, Italy, 17th Festival: Settimane Musicali al Teatro Olimpico 20-22 June 2008
Leaflet with list of tracks and cast on CD-ROM: Notes, Synopsis & Libretto in English and Italian, Artists’ Biographies in English only plus photographs of cast and orchestra
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94105 [72.08 + 67.51+ 1 CD-ROM]
Ottone in Villa (Otho in the Country) was Vivaldi’s first opera. It’s to a libretto by Domenico Lalli. Although it has a Roman emperor (Ottone) at its core, the nature of the plot is more amorous than heroic. The story revolves around the loves of Cleonilla, mistress of the Roman emperor Ottone. Caio, a handsome young man, courts Cleonilla to the despair of his former lover Tullia, who disguises herself as a man. What does she intend to achieve under this fake masculine identity? Well (naturally!), she intends to win Caio back by conquering the heart of Cleonilla! There are many twists and turns but finally, it all ends well, in particular for the two women. Tullia gets her man back (Caio) albeit by order of the emperor who in turn keeps Cleonilla, incredibly believing all her lies, and allowing her infidelity (first with Caio and then Ostillio who turned out to be Tullia in disguise) to go unpunished. It is as implausible a plot as any but as with most operas of this period it creates a showcase for some stunning arias and some sensitive, beautiful music.
The last two years have seen a revival in the fortunes of this opera. There have been some fine live performances and two admirable recordings: The one dealt with in this review that actually took place in 2008 and another by Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini. I became acquainted with the latter version first, only because I actually went to the live concert performance at the Barbican, in London, on 21 May 2010. There the role of Ottone was sung by a real contralto, the fantastic Sonia Prina who sang it with supreme beauty and assured technique. The concert also revealed an outstanding, to me unknown, singer who I had never before heard: the young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva who sang Caio with great charm and incredible virtuosity. The other singers although effective were not as spectacular as the two that I have mentioned. I truly loved the performance at the time and thought that it would be difficult to top. Then, along comes this version by L’Arte dell’Arco, led by Federico Guglielmo and an array of not so well known singers, who together manage to produce an outstanding and truly wonderful recording.
This performance was recorded live in 2008 at the famous Teatro Olimpico, in Vicenza (northern Italy); a theatre opened in 1585 and designed by no less an architect than the famous Andrea Palladio. Vicenza was in fact the city where Vivaldi premiered the opera on 17 May 1713, though not at the Teatro Olimpico but at the Teatro delle Grazie. In the notes, we are told that the city of Vicenza really welcomed this performance at their gloriously beautiful Teatro Olimpico, which survives intact to this day. Listening to this set it is easy to understand why they were so enthusiastic.
The relationship between Vivaldi and the city of Vicenza, as well as the story of the opera’s first performance are detailed in a very interesting, informative article, written by Vittorio Bolcato and Federico Guglielmo. This is included in the notes that come with the recording. Unusually, instead of the normal CD booklet, we have a leaflet with the track numbers and the cast list; all the notes as well as the artists’ biographies and the synopsis come on a CD-ROM. This is something that I have never seen before and while it may prove a problem for some people - if one does not own a computer for example - I actually really liked it. It allows the inclusion of more information than the usual booklet and the beauty of it is that one can control the size of the font, easily navigate the pages and search for a particular name or phrase, as well as save the text onto the computer or print it if preferred. In the CD-ROM are also included the full libretto in Italian, with the English translation, as well as decent size, clear photographs of the cast and orchestra. A CD-ROM is a good alternative to the normal CD booklet. I thoroughly enjoyed using it.
This recording of Ottone in Villa is a great achievement, both in artistic terms and in the exceptional sound quality. The orchestra plays on period instruments and replicates exactly the numbers that Vivaldi specified for the first performance. The details are all clearly explained in the CD-ROM notes. It was composed for a small orchestra, no chorus and only five singers, which establishes a certain intimacy, almost as if we were dealing with chamber music. Guglielmo and his players successfully recreate this intimate atmosphere and also manage a very pleasing acoustic balance between instruments and voices. Each instrument is clearly heard as is each single voice, all shining through individually and as a whole. This is a performance of rare clarity and beauty. I also liked the fact that Guglielmo chose to use a more subtle, slightly slower tempo than that in other performances. Although these display more sparkling vocal and musical fireworks, they become less effective and not as ear-pleasing as this interpretation.
The gullible Roman emperor Ottone is here exceptionally sung by the young and exciting Norwegian mezzo Tuva Semmingsen. Her voice has an exquisite timbre and a wide range. Her tone is limpid and warm in the higher notes and she sails easily through the difficult coloratura passages. Incredibly moving in the lower range of her voice she imparts a dark edge that makes her sound like a real contralto instead of a mezzo. She is a match for the marvellous Sonia Prina who sang the part with Il Giardino Armonico. In the role of the volatile Cleonilla, we have the rather glamorous Italian soprano Maria Laura Martorana. She was the revelation of the CD. I had read about Ms Martorana but never before heard her sing and I must confess that I thought she was simply magnificent. Her voice has an extraordinary crystal clear, sensual quality, which is supported by a strong technique. She glides effortlessly through all the coloratura passages but is also entirely accomplished in the slower, more delicate moments, enhancing these with some very elegant, graceful phrasing. She is also a fine actress, convincingly portraying an attractive, alluring woman who can easily seduce any man she sets her eyes on. She makes it totally believable that Caio would fall for her, abandoning the possibly dull Tullia. Ottone never questions her loyalty nor does he perceive her lies.
The part of Tullia/Ostillio is sung by another young singer, this time Italian soprano Marina Bartoli (no relation of the more famous Cecilia). She also delivers an superb performance though, I did not find her tone particularly remarkable. Even so, she displays an assured technique and solid dramatic expression. The role of the young man Caio Silio was, in the original first performance, in Vicenza, sung by the castrato Bartolomeo Bartoli. Perhaps suitably this is here delivered by a counter-tenor rather than a woman, which to my mind makes the role more credible. The counter-tenor is the young and distinguished Romanian singer Florin Cezar Ouatu. He has won several prestigious international singing competitions and, once one hears him, it is not difficult to understand why. His voice is more akin to that of a mezzo than a soprano but he possesses easy, warm high notes, a solid legato technique, enviable vocal dramatic skills and a youthful timbre that make him believable as a youngster in love. The fifth and final role, Decio (Ottone’s confidant), is relatively small - compared to the other four - but is also the only truly male voice in the opera. This provides a welcome “relief” from the other predominantly very high voices, even though it is that of a high tenor. It is here sung by the accomplished Italian Luca Dordolo who makes the most of his role, cleverly displaying his vocal ability, which is considerable. He sings the four arias assigned to him exceptionally well, with effortless high notes and a bright, attractive tone. His pronunciation is also very clear, enhanced by a quite refined phrasing. It’s very enjoyable and pleasantly fits with the other members of the cast and the orchestra.
This edition of Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa, by the - in this particular case - adroitly named Brilliant label, is truly excellent. It’s one of those rare CDs where everything is in the right place. We are a long way away from the end of the current year but when we get there, I will definitely return to this offering, possibly as one of my Recordings of 2011.