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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Il Giustino (1724) – Dramma per music in three Acts to a libretto after Niccolò Beregan
Giustino – Delphine Galou (contralto)
Arianna – Emőke Baráth (soprano)
Anastasio – Silke Gäng (contralto)
Leocasta – Verónica Cangemi (soprano)
Vitaliano – Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (tenor)
Amanzio – Arianna Vendittelli (soprano)
Andronico – Alessandro Giangrande (alto)
Polidarte – Alessandro Giangrande (tenor)
Fortuna – Rahel Maas (soprano)
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
rec. 8-16 April 2018, Sala Oriani, Antico Convento San Francesco, Bagnacavallo, Ravenna, Italy
Booklet notes and synopsis in English, French, Italian, and German
Italian libretto with English and French translations
NAÏVE OP30571 [3 CDs: 188 mins]

Few institutions have done as much as Naïve’s magnificent Vivaldi Edition in rehabilitating his reputation as an opera composer in the modern era, with their release of stage works throughout this series in engaging and sparkling interpretations. This recording of Il Giustino is no exception, both in the quality of the performance, and in the value of the opera revealed.

Ever the entrepreneur, like Handel, Vivaldi sought promotion wherever and whenever he could; and so, although he remains indelibly associated with his native Venice, he made various trips to other Italian centres for opportunities to compose and perform new works. Il Giustino was premiered during the carnival season of 1724 in Rome and contains much wonderful music, some of which will be known already to general listeners. The Sinfonia in Act I which introduces Rahel Maas’s delightfully coaxing Fortuna adapts the famous theme of the ‘Spring’ Concerto – a work which Vivaldi had not yet published at the point of the opera’s premiere – and Anastasio’s aria ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ has become a favourite of countertenors. Two arias featuring the plucked tones of the psaltery are the only known compositions by Vivaldi to employ that instrument, and the concluding chorus adopts a French style with its catchy chaconne form.

The libretto was an old one from 1683 and was later also adapted for Handel in London during the twilight of his operatic career. The story combines a loose retelling of Byzantine history with epic fantasy as the general Vitaliano (Vitalianus) wages war on the Eastern Roman Emperor, Anastasio, who has married Arianna (Ariadne) the widow of his predecessor on the throne, Zeno. Historically Giustino became Justin I and founded the prominent Justinian line of Byzantine emperors, and was succeeded by Justinian I, who was immortalised in turn with his wife Theodora in the glorious mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna. In more sensational operatic fashion, here Giustino starts as a peasant, and proves his worth in a series of heroic deeds, reminiscent of those in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, such as slaying the sea monster at whose mercy Arianna is left by Vitaliano. Along the way are various twists and turns in the narrative, disguises, revelations, and coups de théâtre which are the stuff of Baroque opera.

In the title role, Delphine Galou has a colourful, reedy shimmer in her timbre which sounds close to that of a male countertenor, particularly the likes of Philippe Jaroussky or Franco Fagioli, if a little more restrained than the latter. That said, as Giustino revels in his triumphs in the Act II aria ‘Su l’altar di questo Nume’, Galou swoops in upward leaps which sound like a snarled, sly laugh, providing startling dramatic flair. In the generally more decorous music for his beloved Leocasta, Verónica Cangemi offers an attractive contrast with supple singing in some of the work’s most ravishing numbers, such as the way she floats the melody of her aria ‘Sventurata naavicella’ in ethereal unison with the violins alone, without basso continuo, or the clear focus she imparts to the line of ‘Senza l’amato ben’ with its bittersweet chromaticisms against the harmonies.

Silke Gäng and Emőke Baráth are another well characterised pair as the Emperor and Empress respectively. Where Baráth is generally assertive and confident, Gäng is a touch more yielding and chivalrous in the trouser role, with tenderness expressing a certain assured dignity of his own, as in ‘Sento in seno’, or the aforementioned ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ where the melody is set against Accademia Bizantina’s gently urgent, palpitating triplet rhythm in the accompaniment. Although Baráth’s catalogue of recorded roles seems to grow at an impressive rate, she never falls back on to autopilot but lives the character she is playing with convincing musicality.

As the bellicose general Vitaliano, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is surprisingly reserved, and a slight catarrhal quality tends to dull the shades of his vocal tone such that he could breathe more fury as he sets about his warring intentions, or sound more troubled and strained as he sits in chains in prison once he is defeated.

Arianna Vendittelli is the courtier and general Amanzio, bounding with duplicitous scheming and joy in another trouser role, who insinuates to Anastasio that the Empress favours Giustino rather too much, and launches his own bid for the throne. Alessandro Giangrande demonstrates audible versatility by taking two parts in different vocal ranges, and sounding idiomatic in each: a wily alto as Andronico, and dependable tenor as Polidarte, the captain of Vitaliano’s guards.

If Vivaldi’s music is not as texturally or harmonically rich as Handel in his operas, Ottavio Dantone skilfully draws out its colours, nuances, and lively rhythms which show that Vivaldi’s dramatic genius lies in other aspects of his musical setting. Arias also tend to be briefer and so, without rushing them, Dantone still conveys a sense of vitality and drive through the performance without sacrificing detail or expression. The boisterousness of the overture and some arias – and even certain recitatives – contrasts with the delicate hues he brings out of an aria such as ‘Senti l’aura che leggiera’ evoking spring, like the soft tones of a Tiepolo painting.

Despite cutting a handful of arias, this recording presents rather more of the score than that by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – which entirely omits the role of Andronico and most of Polidarte’s part, for example – although the latter does contain a few things not in Naïve’s, including the echoes which come as Arianna languishes at the mercy of a sea monster before Giustino’s intervention. Vivaldi completists will want both sets, then, though they may well have the fuller account on four CDs by Estèvan Velardi and the Alessandro Stradella Consort. Perfectly serviceable and lively performances though these earlier recordings are, by comparison with Dantone they tend to sound more foursquare, so this latest version stands as first choice for the constantly dramatic and insightful way in which he brings the score to life, alongside his vivid cast. The booklet notes by the prominent scholar Reinhard Strohm are useful but not as detailed about the work’s historical background or in analysing the music as those in previous operatic issues by Naïve, which is surprising given that it is his edition of the score which Dantone uses.

Curtis Rogers

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