Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Ottone in Villa RV729 (1713) [134:35]
Sonia Prina (alto) - Ottone; Julia Lezhneva (soprano) - Caio Silio; Veronica Cangemi (soprano) - Cleonilla; Roberta Invernizzi (soprano) - Tullia; Topi Lehtipuu (tenor) - Decio
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
rec. May 2010, Centro Culturel Miguel Delibes, Valladolid, Spain. DDD
NAÏVE OP30493 [76:59 + 57:36]

The Vivaldi Edition, of which this 14th volume of the theatrical works (and 46th overall) is a part, must be considered one of the most significant of its kind. And not merely because it seeks out and brings to life otherwise unpublished and/or unperformed works by the greatest composer of the Italian High Baroque. What it does it does extremely well.

This latest is a 2-CD set and is true to form. Ottone in Villa was Vivaldi's first opera, dating from 1713, when the 35-year-old 'Red Priest' oversaw its première, in Vicenza. He had asked for, and received, a six month leave of absence from his duties at the Pietà in Venice to do this. He had been itching for years to move into the world of theatrical works, opera and the 'real' stage - as opposed, and in addition, to - writing dramatically in his instrumental compositions. In many ways, the chance to present Ottone away from the hot-house of Venice was a kind of 'dry run' for a later real debut.

Ottone in Villa is an opera in three acts to a libretto by Sebastiano Biancardi, who used the pseudonym, Domenico Lalli. It's a pastoral drama set in ancient Rome; the libretto is actually an adaptation of the satirical opera, Messalina (1679), by Carlo Pallavicino based on Francesco Maria Piccioli's text. Lalli changed several of the characters and added others. Ottone, for example, had already figured in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642) and Handel's Agrippina (1709); he emerged from Piccioli/Pallavicino's emperor Claudius.

Ottone (Sonia Prina) is in love with Cleonilla (Veronica Cangemi) (Piccioli/Pallavicino's Messalina), who prefers dalliances with two young Romans, Caio (Julia Lezhneva) and Ostilio (really a woman, Tullia (Roberta Invernizzi) herself in love with Caio). Ostilio/Tullia plans to kill Cleonilla but first tries to talk her out of the 'relationship'. Caio sees this conversation and misinterprets it as a liaison. On warning Ottone, he is commanded to kill Ostilio/Tullia. Before this can happen, though, Ostilio reveals 'himself' as Tullia making anyone's death all but unnecessary. Everything ends happily with the marriage of Tullia and Caio.

It's relatively light stuff, then. Ottone is little but an instrument. Yet Sonia Prina sings as well as the rest of the principals. There are moments of real Vivaldian sparkle: Ostilio/Tullia's aria, 'Sì, Sì, Deggio partire' [CD 1 tr.24]. There are several passages of excellent incidental and supporting string writing, for instance. It's bouncy and transparent and plays delightfully with cross-tempi suggesting, perhaps, the relatively tame duplicities afoot. There are also moments of pathos and reflection. And some bravura singing, particularly in the high voices - such as Caio's aria which closes Act I [CD.1 tr.26]. But there's little that either tugs at the heart or opens the eyes all that wide. Vivaldi's first opera is far from trite but it's neither profound nor ground breaking. Nevertheless, when it's finished, you're in no way fatigued by the music. It was Vivaldi, after all: you're left with a pleasant satisfied sensation of having listened to genuinely good opera.

It's all the more remarkable and laudable that the performers on this crisp and uncluttered recording have managed to drive it forward with all due impetus; to bring out the foibles and strengths of the characters; and to have the music underpin the tensions between them, their ambitions, regrets, deviousness and humilities; to play up, for example, some quite notable woodwind writing at points in the plot when it makes the greatest impact. It also conveys accurately the sense of structure and dramatic development which Vivaldi achieves by differing uses of key.

These are seasoned performers working in a familiar milieu, which is comfortable to them. Yet they create and consistently retain a pace that always brings them with us. Little snatches of recitative are taken quickly; exchanges between protagonists are snappy and pointed; instrumental interludes and introductions are never lingered over. At the same time, where the action demands pause or even near stasis, such as the dialogue between Caio and Tullia towards the end of the second act [CD.1 tr.31], these are crafted with delicacy and grace. Similarly there are moments of beauty, wistful tenderness and poignancy - like the aria, 'L'ombre, L'aure, e ancora il rio', which immediately follows. Here, too, the players and singers perform with great and limpid sensitivity. At times these suffice to give us a glimpse of those traits with which we associate the later Vivaldi.

If you're collecting the sets in the Vivaldi Edition, you won't want to miss Ottone in Villa. If you constantly wonder at Vivaldi's versatility - or at his inventiveness - you'll also want to get the recording. Lovers of Baroque opera, for all that they may know a dozen analogues to this, will find much in the work of beauty, charm and real interest. Above all, it's to be valued for the precision, expression and attention to detail and form of the singers and players. The booklet is chock full of detail, historical background and relevant information on the performers as well as the full libretto. The acoustic is immediate and aids our appreciation of every syllable. Antonini's lightness of touch is matched only by his thorough understanding of just what's needed at every turn.

Mark Sealey

Another success in Naïve's Vivaldi Edition: not the most profound or original Baroque opera ever written; but one which enthusiasts shouldn't miss.