‘When is a Vivaldi opera not a Vivaldi opera?’ is a question that springs to mind on approaching this performance of Vivaldi’s 1737 opera L’oracolo in Messenia, here performed by Europa Galante at the Barbican, in a reconstructed edition of the Vienna version of 1742. Both versions of the opera are now lost but the libretti have survived, forming the basis of this edition put together by Fabio Biondi, leader of Europa Galante. As a pasticcio, 13 of the numbers have been taken from an earlier setting of the libretto by that well known opera composer Giacommelli whilst only 10 are by Vivaldi himself, and these are themselves taken from others of the Venetian composer’s operas and pasticcios.
The opera was taken to Vienna by the aged Vivaldi in 1740 with the prospect of presenting it in the Hapsburg capitol and gaining employment; employment which was waning in the composer’s native Venice. Sadly, aristocrats are rarely considerate patrons and this particular one rather inconveniently died before the opera could be produced. As a result of the Emperor Charles VI’s death, the theatres were closed and Vivaldi appears to have suffered greatly from the loss of a patron, succumbing to internal inflammation (innerlicher Brand given in the Viennese necrology recording his death) in 1741. Such are the oft written about circumstances of the last years of il prete rosso. Produced posthumously, the opera was a success and starred the ever present Anna Girò as Merope.
The plot is a dense tale of past infanticide, murder, a long lost child, disguises, eventual reconciliation and resulting recriminations. Oh, and an offstage boar fight. Which opera could be complete without one of those?
Under Biondi, Europa Galante played with crisp articulation, deft trills and plenty of gutsy playing but it often verged on caricature and there was a sense that the orchestra were trying to be the stars of the concert rather than underpinning the singers. Especially irritating though was the harpsichordist’s habit of adding unpleasant harmonic progressions that really jarred on the ear, both in the recitatives and in the tenor aria ‘Se al cader del mostro orrendo’. Considering this was one of the actual Vivaldi arias used in this pasticcio, it’s hard to believe that this was the doing of the Venetian composer. There was a fair amount of internal harmonic resolution and ornamentation that was more appropriate for French baroque opera than an Italian opera first performed in Austria. In Licisco’s aria ‘So, ch’è vezzosa’, a throwaway pizzicato final note drew a thin line between wittiness and self-indulgence. With much overuse of ritardandi at the end of arias and some very slow recitatives, the orchestra’s performance was a mix, with some real excitement being generating occasionally slipping into too stylised an interpretation.
Vivica Genaux in the castrato role of Epitide displayed her distinctive tone – following a distinctly jaunty prayer for mercy from the team of soloists, her first aria ‘Dono d’amica sorte’ felt like a warm up but it was thoughtfully sung in the oppressive fug of the Barbican hall. I was not the only one feeling that a little air con would have been nice! ‘Sarebbe un bel diletto’ which closed Act 1 showed a clean move between upper and lower registers, though with the aforementioned French style trill in the tenor line at the end. ‘Chi condanna il regio sangue’ had precise notes but was overly quiet in places. Genaux may not have the loudest of voices and I’m not sure how well her voice carried into the Circle. She does produce a sweet sound (in the ariosa ‘Spiagge amiche’ in particular) but much of the performance was subdued. In contrast, her final aria ‘Sposa…non mi conosci’ was impassioned, and it provided a welcome change to have such dark minor key music after such relentlessly jolly arias. I could suddenly appreciate why Sturm und Drang would be such a blessed relief in the 18th Century. This aria by Giacommelli is excellent in its own right and gave Genaux an opportunity to wring some emotional depth out of Epitide’s sense of isolation at this late point in the drama, as he is denounced by both his mother and lover.
As the maligned queen Merope Marianne B. Kielland, was slightly tremulous at the top end of her register and sometimes overly dramatic at the cost of musical quality. However, this did result in a convincing amount of hatred during ‘Barbaro traditor’ and the preceding dramatic accompagnato, virtually spitting with fury, menacing the dastardly Polifonte who is attempting to marry her against her will. ‘Un labbro, un cor non vé’, was performed well with fewer affectations. The role provided a number of impressive accompagnati for Kielland and her final aria ‘Là sul torbido Acheronte’ was well sung, verging on hysterically shouting – but then, believing that you have just been misled into sentencing your own child to death may well have that effect. As with the other performers, she took a while to warm up and if she was not quite the equal of Ann Hallenberg in the role, there was much to enjoy in her singing.
Magnus Staveland as the usurping Polifonte was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. His tenor sound was dark and veiled but there was some unevenness between registers. His singing was rather mechanical in his Act 3 aria, ‘Già l’idea del giusto scempio’. He ran dangerously close to sending up the character, turning him into an obvious pasteboard villain with his panto villain acting. At one point, as the character was sentencing Merope to death (yes another death sentence – plot was not a strong point of this opera), he appear to lose his way in the recitative, skipping lines before having to return to an earlier point.
Epitide’s love interest Elmira was sung by Marina De Liso who had volume but her voice ranged markedly within arias, injecting too much vibrato within ‘Se me vedi nel mio pianto’ to the point that one couldn’t tell if a trill was being attempted or whether it was just an anachronism. ‘La mia cara speranza’ was more secure, displaying a voice that might sit more naturally within Rossinian repertoire. However the cadence at end of B section sound harmonically unconvincing, though de Liso was not the only singer in the performance that this could be applied to.
As if to show the others how to do it, soprano Julia Lezhneva tackled the role of the courtier Trasimede, producing some of the most impressive singing of the evening. ‘Son qual nave’, written by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi, was explosive, eliciting a clear sound, with an often powerful sound. Her top notes were clear and pinged with crystal clarity that made up for a slight pinched quality about them. Whizzing around the notes nonchalantly, the tempo must rival those taken by Genaux in her performances of arias for Farinelli. Vivaldi’s own hellishly virtuosic aria ‘Se in campo armato’ was an addition from the earlier version of the opera and was slickly delivered.
In the smaller supporting roles Franziska Gottwald as Licisco provided a peculiarly stylised performance with some affected gesturing. She possesses a light, pleasant voice but this was an oddly disengaged performance. Her ‘Sinché il tiranno scendere’ was characterised by some dreamy singing and a well ornamented da capo. Rupert Enticknap was the henchman Anassandro, revelling in adding high camp to this unpleasant character. Given only one aria, his lower notes were inaudible, poorly projected and swamped by the strings. I wonder if is appearances as Nerillo in Cavalli’s Ormindo at the Sam Wannamaker Theatre, in which he is currently singing, have tempered his characterisation.
With a final chorus that was perfunctory and musically slight, the ending was a bit of a damp squib coming as it did at the end of a concert that ran to nearly four hours. With there being enough extant Vivaldi operas available to perform, reconstructing L’oracolo in Messenia seems an unusual choice of a new addition to the repertoire, fine as individual arias were.