17 Feb 2006

VIVALDI: Arie d’Opera

This recording is another gem from the Complete Vivaldi Edition, a collaboration of Naïve (opus 111) and various Piedmontese institutions [see this author’s review of Vivaldi’s Orlando in that series].

Unlike some of the releases in that continuing venture, which are lovely but perhaps not essential to those who are not working on a complete Vivaldi library, this is truly a volume of “greatest hits”, and deserves consideration even as the single recording to acquire from this spectacular venture. (Indeed, it might just be the CD that makes you a Vivaldi aficionado.)

Histories of the Italian operatic tradition in the generations surrounding Vivaldi always dwell on the phenomenon of the “suitcase aria”, a commonplace in a period dominated by superstar singers. In essence, the story goes as follows: star singers brought along favorite arias (in their “suitcase”, as it were) when hired for an operatic season, demanding that the composer integrate “their aria” in any new operatic production. While the phenomenon was likely not as blatant as some have portrayed it, it also made perfect sense within the system of the time: audiences paid to hear specific singers, and singers relied on arias that could display their vocal agility and expressive talents. There is little evidence that composers resented this situation; in fact, they were very sensitive to the fact that their own reputations rested on their ability to furnish singers with arias that could draw audiences in time and time again.

The “suitcase aria” story has centered on singers; but this CD gives us a peek into Vivaldi’s own suitcase. In the booklet, musicologist Frederic Delaméa speculates that the collection of arias from the Foà archive (from which these works are drawn) was a compendium of favorite works for various voices and instrumentations – Vivaldi’s own “greatest hits” compilation – that the composer assembled as he was preparing to travel throughout Europe in the early 1720s. Perhaps these were favorite arias that could be incorporated in their entirety in a new opera, or modified to suit a specific singer, as Vivaldi established his reputation as a composer and impresario away from home; or perhaps they could have been copied out for sale to amateurs, or as presents to important patrons. Whatever their purpose, it does seem clear that this collection was purposefully assembled by Vivaldi as representative, in some way, of his best work to date.

Diversity is extraodinary in this subset of 16 of the 47 arias from Vivaldi’s “suitcase collection”. The instrumental forces for the arias range from relatively straightforward string ensemble to extraordinary “special effect” scorings (two concertante harpsichords in one case). Sardelli notes in his comments on the scorings that he added doubling oboes and bassoon to a couple of the arias in the collection that did not otherwise specify those instruments; this reviewer regrets the decision, not out of a sense of historical purity or authenticity – there is certainly 18th century evidence for the creative doubling of parts when extra instruments were available – but because of the lost opportunity to hear a yet greater variety of scorings. Sometimes less can be at least as interesting as more, especially in a collection that highlights its variety of musical effects. But this is a minor point; Modo Antiquo are a remarkably tight ensemble, and their interaction with the vocalists is simultaneously subtle and powerful.

Diversity is also evident in the choice of singers who are charged with conveying Vivaldi’s Greatest Hits (this creative choice of singers has been, and continues to be, one of the remarkable strengths of the Vivaldi Collection). Soprano Sandrine Piau displays sensational expressive energy, especially in the first track (“Certo timor”) and the onomatopoetic “Zeffiretti che sussurrate”, where her breathy delivery conveys the whispering zephyrs to a “T”. Precision and flexibility seem completely second-nature to her, and she reliably provides new fireworks in the ornamentation for the da capo. The richness of mezzosoprano Ann Hallenberg’s tone color is a perfect contrast to Piau’s incisiveness, and while her flexibility is less spectacularly in evidence, the aria with obbligato sopranino recorder “Io son fra l’onde” is a real show-stopper and a perfect last track on the CD. Guillemette Laurens, long an outstanding presence in early music, only has a cameo in the lovely but atypical strophic arias from Tito Manlio, in alternation then in counterpoint with Hallenberg; the color of their voices is very similar, and there is a great deal of unison in these arias, so the effect is less striking than this reviewer might have wished. It seems churlish to find fault with Paul Agnew, who is one of the great tenors in pre-Mozart repertory; but this reviewer finds his voice less successful in this Vivaldi recording than it has been in other contexts (especially eighteenth-century French music, for which he is an absolute haut-contre superstar); at issue is not the clarity and flexibility, which Agnew has in spades, but rather the (sometimes almost manic) energy which explodes from these Vivaldian arias, and which both Piau and Hallenberg convey in a way that this reviewer found more deeply satisfying.

It would be too much to expect unbroken greatness even from a “greatest hits” collection, and the variety of the arias in this collection will ensure that at least one comes across as trivial or unconvincing to each listener who encounters the CD. The same can be said of the performances, and this reviewer could spend some time listing the ones he thought were more or less remarkable. But the beauty of such a “greatest hits” compilation is its diversity, and I have no doubt that others will find much to love even in those arias that I personally have taken out of my I-Pod’s “favorites” playlist. And since many of these are newly recorded works, it is a delight to open Vivaldi’s suitcase and have the opportunity to hear his own choice of works presented by such a strong ensemble.

Andrew Dell’Antonio
The University of Texas at Austin

Related Link:

VIVALDI: Orlando Furioso