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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
L’Oracolo in Messenia overo La Merope - Opera in musica, RV 726 (1737, 1742)
Polifonte, king of Messenia – Magnus Staveland (tenor)
Merope, Queen of Messenia – Ann Hallenberg (mezzo)
Epitide, son of Merope (under the name of Cleon) – Vivica Genaux (mezzo)
Elmira, Princess of Etolia – Romina Basso (mezzo)
Trasimede, chief minister of Messenia – Julia Lezhneva (soprano)
Licisco, ambassador from Etolia – Franziska Gottwald (mezzo)
Anassandro, confidant of Polifonte – Xavier Sabata (counter-tenor)
Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi (violin and conductor)
rec. live, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, 13-15 January 2012
Booklet notes: English, French, German
Full libretto: Italian. English, French, German
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6025472 [79.49 + 75.52]

L’Oracolo in Messenia was first performed at the Teatro S. Angelo, in Venice, on 28 December 1737. It became an instant and resounding success for Vivaldi who was applauded both by the public and the press. Interestingly enough, and not unusual in those days, the opera was not a real original but a pasticcio. Vivaldi was familiar with Apostolo Zeno’s libretto and with Geminiano Giacomelli’s La Merope, staged in Venice three years earlier, featuring two of the greatest, most famous castrati of the time. They were Carlo Broschi known as Farinelli and Gaetano Majorano whose stage name was Caffarelli. Vivaldi greatly admired Giacomelli’s work and had been looking at Zeno’s libretto for a while. When forced to write a piece in a very short period of time, to open the Venice Carnival season of 1737-38, he decided to borrow from his own previous works, as well as Giacomelli’s. Using Zeno’s libretto he wrote L’Oracolo in Messenia in less than a month. The story of why this came to be is rather interesting and I would recommend reading of the exceptionally good booklet notes, particularly pages 18 to 21, where all this is craftily explained.
 
In 1740, Vivaldi had left Venice and decided to settle in Vienna. In his luggage, he took among others the score to L’Oracolo, which he began immediately revising, hoping to be able to stage it in Vienna and enjoy a similar success to the one in Venice. Sadly, this was never to happen. Vivaldi died poor and was buried in a communal grave in 1741, in the Austrian capital, exactly fifty years before Mozart, as noted in the booklet. Naturally, they never met – Mozart was born in 1756 – but it is somehow a moving coincidence that two of the greatest music exponents of the 18th century shared the same fate at the end of their lives.
 
After the composer’s death, the revised version of L’Oracolo in Messenia was posthumously performed in Vienna in 1742. It is another rather interesting story also pleasantly narrated in the booklet notes.
 
I found this recording, as well as the accompanying booklet, simply outstanding. One must admire Fabio Biondi for bringing the work to life. Both the original and the revised scores of L’Oracolo were lost; however, the libretto survives. The Vienna libretto displays the extensive revisions made by the composer. So, based on it, conductor Biondi painstakingly brought the opera back to life. The award-winning baroque orchestra Europa Galante give a spirited, vivacious interpretation, led magnificently by their founder, and leader ever since, Fabio Biondi. His direction is flawless, intelligent and insightful. It is obvious at every moment that he enjoys the final product of his labour and he clearly shares his energy and enthusiasm with every single member of the orchestra. One knows that this is in a manner of speaking a recycled work, containing not only arias from some of Vivaldi’s previous operas but also from some of his contemporaries. Nevertheless it makes for an exciting ride. This is not only due to the extraordinary performance of the orchestra but also to the marvellous cast that Biondi assembled for the concert performance.
 
This CD was recorded live in the Viennese Konzerthaus with a “deluxe” cast. Ann Hallenberg as Merope is excellent; Franziska Gottwald makes a fabulous Etolian ambassador and young soprano Julia Lezhneva is simply outstanding as Trasimede, chief minister of Messenia. She does not have an extensive part and only sings two arias but excels in both, particularly the first, a seven and a half minute “mad” piece, originally written by Riccardo Broschi for his talented brother Carlo (Farinelli). The aria is a difficult fireworks display of somebody’s vocal talents and Lezhneva negotiates it beautifully, giving a sense of ease and harmony that would surely have made the great Farinelli envious. For me, the weakest link is tenor Magnus Staveland as Polifonte, the tyrant king of Messenia. I do not mean to say that he is bad because he is not. He never lets out a wrong note; his voice is dramatically rather expressive but, to my personal taste, his tone rings a little too metallic, lacking warmth and his timbre is not very pleasant. This is bel canto from the era of the extraordinary vocal power of the castrati. Staveland, in my opinion, though a solid, excellent tenor in most situations, does not possess the coloratura or the refined beautiful legato required for this type of singing. Still, and although his effort is more noticeable than any of the female cast, it is to his credit that he delivers his part effectively alongside his fellow singers and the orchestra. The only other man, counter-tenor Xavier Sabata, does a convincing job with his sole aria in Act III. He delivers it with the right amount of menace and defiance. It remains for me to write about the two other female singers, which I haven’t yet mentioned because I deliberately kept the best for last! I am speaking of mezzos Romina Basso and Vivica Genaux who to me, marvellous as the rest of the cast is, are head and shoulders above the others. Basso’s beautiful, slightly dark tone and her outstanding coloratura in the lower range of her voice make her a magnificent princess Elmira, proud, tender and head-strong. I simply loved her performance. As for Genaux, well! What can I say? She has many times before proved that there are not many people who can sing arias for the castrati with such panache and clarity. She negotiates all the difficult passages seamlessly. Her voice is accomplished, mature throughout, which could be a disadvantage, as she is performing the role of a very young man but Ms Genaux skilfully manages to depict a young, enthusiastic Epitide, the son of queen Merope. Vivica Genaux is usually exceptionally good but here, she achieves greatness. I have never heard her sing so well.
 
Finally, the technical quality of the sound is exceptional. We can hear each instrument and the voices with great clarity, easily forgetting that it was recorded live. To me, the only downside is the many recitatives, which can become tedious. The wonderful performances of orchestra and singers more than compensate for it, as the music and the arias are terrific. Although a pasticcio, L’Oracolo in Messenia shows the greatness of Vivaldi as a fantastic instrumentalist and a composer of considerable operatic skill. This recording by Biondi and the excellent musicians of Europa Galante will take its place proudly on any collector’s shelve. I would give it ten out of ten and I intend to listen to it over and over again.
 
Margarida Mota-Bull
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/)

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