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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Il Farnace, Dramma per musica - opera in two acts RV711-G (1739)
Mary-Ellen Nesi - Farnace; Sonia Prina - Tamiri; Roberta Mameli - Gilade; Delphine Galou - Berenice; Loriana Castellano - Selinda; Magnus Staveland - Aquilo; Emanuele D'Aguanno - Pompeo
Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Federico Maria Sardelli
rec. Teatro Comunale di Firenze, Italy, 29, 31 May 2013
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i
Region: Worldwide
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in surround.
DYNAMIC Blu-ray 57670 [151.00]

Vivaldi revised and recomposed this opera for different singers and different places seven times, each time to his satisfaction, so historical records tell us. This performance is of the final version of 1739 prepared for the Ferrara carnival season, which explains the Ryom number having a 'G'.

In the event, according to Robbins Landon (Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque, Harper Collins 1995), the opera was cancelled because Vivaldi had fallen foul of the ecclesiastical authorities. There are only two acts, the last one having been lost. He was to die, penniless, in Vienna where he went in 1740 in search of new patronage, just two years later. There does not appear to be an earlier recording of any version, so for the foreseeable future this is it. Fortunately Dynamic have given us a splendid performance. There are shortcomings but they are minor: the generous-sized orchestra is, one can see, not playing entirely on period instruments and at one or two moments some singers hit a slightly sour note. I for one do not care about either point because what we hear is drawn from two live performances when singers have no chance to retake. The orchestra deserves a gold medal anyway for its phenomenal, and authentic-sounding, virtuosity. The singers are utterly superb 99% of the time, handling Vivaldi's fearsome demands brilliantly. The audience seems to share my feeling that the first among equals is Roberta Mameli who sings Gilade's amorous virtuoso arias with panache. Mary-Ellen Nesi handles the castrato role of Farnace with Kingly authority. The depth of talent in the world of baroque opera never ceases to amaze. Vivaldi must have had very skilled performers and now, nearly 280 years later, the opera companies can apparently match this using singers who not only specialise in the baroque but who can also sing Mozart and Verdi with the best of them.

The conventions of the time mean that the majority of the music is for high voice and therefore both Farnace and 'his' wife Tamiri are female roles. Similarly both Gilades the captain and Farnace's sister Selinda who is trying to seduce 'him' are also both female roles. The excellent notes and synopsis, plus subtitles, are vital if one is to follow what is going on. The staging neither helps nor hinders understanding. It is hard to resolve the problem of setting and costumes. To be 'authentic' when the story is set in Ancient Rome and was intended for an early 18th century audience, would appear to demand painted wooden scenery and either armour, togas and cloaks or the equivalent fashionable items from 1739. Director Marco Gandini and costume and set designer Italo Grassi have gone for a mixture of abstract metal scaffolding structures with lights attached, and modern dress with breastplates or vaguely Romanesque cloaks and dresses. It was obvious that female-female liaisons have to be identifiable to the audience so the women singing men are dressed in manly fashion to reduce confusion. There are realistic horses statues and other paraphernalia. Some of the singing takes place on mobile platforms with music on music-stands. The stage area and wide runways all around the orchestra allow for extensive movement as well as impressive posing during those long da capo arias. Imaginative lighting puts the icing on a very well baked operatic cake. Everyone acts their socks off, there is lots of movement and lots of emoting, aided by back projections showing characters in separately filmed close-up.

Musically this is Vivaldi at his spectacular best. Opera demands somewhat less descriptive orchestration than does purely instrumental music because, as the notes emphasize, the text takes an equal role in conveying events. One example of this is Gilade's aria Quell' usignolo when both strings and soprano have to negotiate cascades of fast notes doubling the impact of one of the best arias in a richly imaginative score. Roberta Mameli not only negotiates this but manages to look seductively at Selinda without losing her place in the score in front of her. No wonder the audience reserved some of their loudest cheers for this lovely singer. One cannot fail to note the wonderfully vital conducting of Federico Maria Sardelli, a musical polymath who extracts the most vital baroque sounds from the skilled players of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Sardelli's CV is an amazing one. He not only conducts but is a flautist, a published researcher, including a study on Vivaldi, and a composer in his own right.

It must be obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed this Blu-ray issue. The sound and picture are well up to the usual standard. The menus are less labyrinthine than usual and mostly make sense without consulting the booklet. A winner.

Dave Billinge


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