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Antonio Vivaldi: Catone in Utica, RV 705: “Come in vano il mare irato” & “Chi può nelle sventure… Nella foresta” – Semiramide, RV 733: “E prigioniero e re” – La fida ninfa, RV 714: “Alma oppressa” & “Destin nemico… Destin avaro” – Griselda, RV718: “Agitata da due venti” – From unknown operas: “Il labbro ti lusinga” & “Sin nel placido soggiorno” – Ipermestra, RV 722: “Vibro il ferro” – Farnace, RV 711: “No, ch’amar non è fallo in cor guerriero... Quell’usignolo ” & “Ricordati che sei” – Tito Manlio, RV 778: “Splender fra ’l cieco orror” – Rosmira fedele, RV 731: “Vorrei dirti il mio dolore”

Vivica Genaux (Mezzo-soprano), Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi (Violin, Direction)
Recorded in the library of San Giovanni Monastery, Parma, Italy (Dec. 17-23, 2008)
EMI/Virgin Classics 50999 6945730 2

As ancient fossils “speak” to archeologists, musical fossils wheeze to us. Usually they wheeze, “Vivaldi? He wrote the same piece of music 500 different times.”

That archaic adage has been endlessly disproven, save for those who place their Four Seasons template on everything they hear. True, the 300-odd concerti have unchanging forms, But Vivaldi’s religious works, marvelous oratorios like Judith Triumphant, his solo instrumental works, and above all, his operas, within their Baroque restrictions, are emotionally valuable, as well as golden treasures for any bel canto singer.

Why, then, did it take over 250 years after the premiere of Orlando Furioso to bring the first complete opera to America? (And not to New York, but to Dallas!).

First, the word opera seria is more intimidating that its meaning. “Tragic opera” sounds far more appealing, though Handel and Mozart were more consequential names for box office success.

Second, only recently did the Turin National University Library index their massive Vivaldi scores–all of the music which the composer himself kept in his private library.

Musically, perhaps Vivaldi became obscured for one particular right reason. Purists were afraid to touch his recitatives, which were tedious and seemingly endless. Any decent opera producer knows that Vivaldi (or his assistants) wrote them as “fillers” for scene and costume changes, opportunities for social intercourse (with assignations) or the Baroque equivalent of a popcorn break.

Eliminating these links makes the story more opaque, but paring them down serves us fewer mashed potatoes, more vocal caviar. Save to the specialist, no Vivaldi aria stands out, the way we think of “Vissi d’arte” or “La donna è mobile”. But each present the utmost challenges to the singer and sometimes joy to the listener.

Artists like Cecilia Bartoli, Sandrine Piau and of course Marilyn Horne have all taken on these arias to show their skills. And now mezzo Vivica Genaux has presented a very generous album of arias, 75 minutes, each challenging, some absolutely gorgeous.

Ms. Genaux doesn’t make any excuses about the title, “Pyrotechnics.” She belts out the music with fireworks, infallible technique and faultless Italian. Alaskan-born, Ms. Genaux lives in Venice, and has obviously soaked up the feeling and magic of the opera of that great city. After all, Venice revolutionized more than opera format. Here, the “public” was allowed seats, so the music generated ardent enthusiasm rather than aristocratic sniffs. (Monteverdi’s producers gave free seats away, inspiring the first opera claques.)

She begins with the most astonishing show of all, a work which should be allegro molto, but is conducted by Fabio Biondi with a prestissimo tempo, sending Ms. Genaux up to high C down to the lowest mezzo reaches without a stop.

Of course we all know Vivaldi’s self-plagiarisms, and when he brings in Four Seasons “Autumn” to introduce the second song, Zoroaster’s aria from Semiramide, it only enhances the autumnal quality of the tragedy, which is sung with greater restraint.

In her “Agitata da due venti”, Ms. Genaux is our typical vestal virgin, resisting advances with the crazy acrobatics that would drive any amorous shepherd mad with desire.

Obviously a break was needed, so Ms. Genaux opted for a galant from an unknown opera, singing “Il labbaro ti lusinga”–my lips flatter you. It gives time for Ms. Genaux to offer different vibratos, and to actually hold onto a few full notes instead of the incessant 16ths. She reverts immediately to her coloratura, the unceasing fireworks of “Vibro el ferro”, and its furious lines.

My favorite was the final song, “Sin nel placido soggiorno”, opening on a pastoral melody with two flutes, a short interlude of pyrotechnics and then back to Vivaldi’s beautiful pastorale.

My second favorite was “Quell’usignolo” from the opera Gisele. Those doubting Vivaldi’s originality should examine this. He uses the nightingale as a metaphor (hardly original) but links this to a delightful original melody, itself graduating to a coloratura passage using the most incredible technique. It is taken fairly slowly, allowing Ms. Genaux to sing, return to the nightingale song, back to the technical wonders.

From the aviary to the zoo, Vivaldi now imitates a wounded lion (another metaphor for misfortune), in Catone in Utica. A slowish introduction leads to the cry of the wounded lion played by two horns with the strings. From the sound, I would imagine these were 18th Century valveless horns, giving sound less resounding than restrained and natural.

At times “pyrotechnics” overcomes meaning, and while that would have been satisfactory in Vivaldi’s time, we sometimes prefer to look for meaning rather than artifice. After a slow line declaring “Alma oppressa da sorte crudele” (The soul afflicted with cruel fate), Ms. Genaux launches into a non-stop cadenza of music. Compare this with Cecilia Bartoli, who offers a dark emotional beginning, pausing in the middle for some more emotional wanderings. This was great singing as with a more emotional power.

Ms. Genaux’s previous Vivaldi recording, the opera Bajazet was conducted by Fabio Biondi with the Europa Galante, a 16-person ensemble of authentic instruments, including theorbe and harpsichord, and she writes in the excellent program notes how “thrilled” she was to have this group here. That is obvious in the choice and the partnership. Much as I would like to say that Ms. Genaux’s performance is breathtaking, I couldn’t hear a single breath that she ever took. This was singing with force, emotion, passion and for a few rare moments, the beauty of Vivaldi as a born melody-maker.

Harry Rolnick




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