This three CD set from Naïve is part of the continuing series of Vivaldi's works - many in the composer's original autograph - contained in the immensely valuable and significant collection at the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. That alone ought to guarantee its quality. That the singers are expert soloists working so well with the Concert des Nations conducted by the ever-energetic and perceptive Jordi Savall should only add to the appeal of this release.
They do. This is yet another set to be bought not only by all those collecting the Vivaldi Edition but also by those who enjoy Baroque opera at its crispest, most trenchant and most communicative. It will also draw in those, perhaps, who only know Vivaldi's most popular works. It would be naïve to ignore that aspect of this immense project which explicitly - certainly implicitly - aims to make the case for Vivaldi's operas. It will help serve to correct the imbalance whereby all too many music-lovers believe that Vivaldi's only - at least greatest - works are instrumental… varieties of concerto in particular.
Like the others issued so far, Teuzzone has depth, pathos, a felicitous mixture of simplicity with maturity and a great sensitivity to its subject matter. In Savall's conception at least Teuzzone covers similar ground to that of some of Mozart's operas. Listen to the duet Que amaro contento [CD.1. tr.17]; it is short and poignant without an excess syllable or bar. This is typical of the undemonstrative, almost understated approach taken by Savall. One is struck from the first scene by the quiet, lambent pace and the peaceful dynamic which the conductor employs. Couple this with the gentle, contained, transparent approach of the singers and the restraint of the instrumentalists.
This measured and focused conception and execution of the opera results in a performance which emphasises the humanity of the story over the conventions. It's hard to avoid associating this sense of calm and control with the economic and entrepreneurial circumstances under which Teuzzone was produced - in 1719 at Mantua. This is well explained in the very full and informative booklet that accompanies the CDs. Vivaldi could concentrate on the music, not the business. He had greater control over the enterprise directing it towards the music and the drama not the Lire.
In many ways, Teuzzone is the usual Baroque opera built on the stock themes of love and politics in intrigues and manoeuvres. It also has the added piquancy of a Chinese setting: less the eighteenth century's obsession with chinoiserie than the Venetian Republic's fascination with China, which first developed at the time of Marco Polo. The libretto is by Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750) and concerns the struggle for the recently-vacated throne of the late emperor Troncone between Teuzzone (legitimate) and Zidiana (pretender). These latter roles are sung with great lucidity and conviction by Paolo Lopez (male soprano) and Raffaella Milanesi (mezzo) respectively.
The same work had already provided the libretto for other operas up to ten times since 1706. It seems as though its popularity ensured a success for Vivaldi. There is little doubt that the work is Vivaldi's. But a good critical edition - for this recording, and for the Vivaldi Edition - has had to take account of contemporary insertions of the work of others' and indeed of parts of Vivaldi's earlier works. This was common at the time. You can hear this in several places. Even themes from the Quattro Stagioni (Ove giro il mesto sguardo [CD.1 tr.15], Ti sento [CD.1 tr.39], for instance) can be detected.
How crucial, then, that the singers and Concert des Nations put accretions to the thrust of the opera aside. They concentrate not necessarily on recreating exactly how audiences in the early eighteenth century would have experienced Teuzzone with its rapid momentum and recognisable emotional complexities. Instead the focus is on pulling to the fore those aspects of human behaviour that are most credible to audiences of our generation. This Savall does exceedingly well. His result is fresh without being sparkling, incisive without undue might and idiomatic with not a sign of formula. Drama and lyricism are uppermost throughout.
This is a real achievement and one which makes this set most collectible. The acoustic is consistently sympathetic - paradoxically placid, almost. Yet the voices and music are never lost, nor is there ever even remotely a hint of lethargy. At the same time, Savall's gift of subtly evoking from his principals their own involvement and individual attachments to the score works well. One is conscious of a great deal of acting as much as of 'mere' singing. Not the same thing at all as 'gesturing' or 'showiness', this assumption of the characters' personalities is all to the good. Teuzzone is alive and immediate from the opening Sinfonia to the closing Coro. Savall surely has in the forefront of his mind Vivaldi's and Zeno's purpose in promoting virtue and legitimacy in such matters as inheritance and power. This is accomplished without cant or self-righteousness. The music is varied, delightful, much of the time beautiful and always very Vivaldian.