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Commentary

Antonio Vivaldi: Tito Manlio
01 Oct 2006

Pairing and Elaboration

The character configuration in Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio is unusual because of its musical pairing of the prima donna Servilia with the seconda donna Vitellia not just once, but twice in the second act of the opera.

Antonio Vivaldi: Tito Manlio

Nicola Ulivieri (Tito), Karina Gauvin (Manlio), Ann Hallenberg (Servilia), Marijana Mijanovic (Vitelia), Debora Beronesi (Lucio), Barbara Di Castri (Decio), Mark Milhofer (Geminio), Christian Senn (Lindo), Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (cond.)

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In both cases this is achieved through a strophic two-stanza arietta, itself an uncommon formal resource in Vivaldi’s operatic output. In these ariette Vivaldi implements by musical means the dramatic coupling of the two female roles in the libretto, dwelling on two key moments in the action when they are first of one mind, and then expressing directly contrasting emotions. Since by Vivaldi’s day it was expected that only the primo uomo and prima donna were to sing together, these two ariette are especially remarkable, and provide both a dramatic and a musical challenge to the performers.

The first arietta takes place in the second scene of Act II, when Tito decrees the impending double marriage of Servilia (princess of the Latins) with his own son Manlio (the primo uomo of the opera) and his daughter Vitellia with Geminio, prince of the Latins and brother to Servilia: Vitellia’s opening stanza rejoicing on her friend’s smiling at the prospect of love is answered in both musical and emotional unison by Servilia’s declaration of fealty to her joyful “sister-in-law-to-be”. Manlio’s subsequent arrival and his announcement that he has slain Geminio in battle creates apparently identical responses of shock and anger by both women, but by Scene 9 we see that their common ground has eroded. When the two women sing their second arietta in this latter scene, their music is again the same but their messages are diametrically opposed: Servilia declares her love for Manlio despite her grief for her brother, while Vitellia proclaims her hatred for Manlio and her wish for her brother’s death.

At the end of the first arietta, “D’improvviso riede il riso,” Vivaldi indicates that Vitellia and Servilia should repeat the arietta in unison (“all’unisono”). Dantone and his cast have chosen an altered approach: while Ann Hallenberg’s and Marijana Milanovic’s timbres are close enough (and the simultaneous presentation of the two texts sonically confusing enough) to make it difficult to discriminate entirely between their voices, it appears that they are taking turns singing Vivaldi’s melody and adding new counterpoint to that melody. This is a satisfying solution that is in keeping with Dantone’s overall approach to musical elaboration in this recording, to which we will return below.

The second arietta, “Dar la morte a te mia vita,” is the first moment at which Servilia and Vitellia display their disunity (up to this point they have had common purpose); perhaps because of this, Vivaldi does not explicitly call for a unison repetition of the stanzas, as he had for “D’Improvviso”. Given that the first arietta did call for this unison, however, it would not have been unreasonable to have one here as well – which could have provided Dantone and his singers with a chance for an even more drastic simultaneous departure from the arietta melody to exemplify the characters’ opposing goals. Regrettable, too, is the slow tempo chosen for this passage, since it makes the singers’ short repeated exclamations of “no, no, no” sound heavy and almost pedantic, and the overall effect is not one of determination (which the text would seem to imply) but one of sluggishness. As a comparison one might propose another recording of this arietta in the same Naïve Vivaldi series, from Vivaldi’s own “greatest hits” compilation, reviewed elsewhere on this site and also featuring Ann Hallenberg. See VIVALDI: Arie d’Opera (17 February 2006). (Both ariette are included in the compilation, which may speak to Vivaldi’s own high esteem for this experimental form, and both are sung with a third repetition of the melody and the simultaneous presentation of both characters’ stanzas. The performers on the compilation recording do not, however, introduce ornamentation in the “combined stanza” – Ann Hallenberg’s Servilia and Guillemette Laurens’s Vitellia sing in unison, making their version of “D’improvviso” sound simplistic in comparison to the one offered on this recording.)

The lack of an ornamented “combined stanza” in the recording under consideration is especially frustrating given the otherwise extraordinary approach to ornamentation provided by Dantone and his cast. In the past decade, singers have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to elaborate on the repeat of the first section in da capo arias, providing modern listeners with a more and more nuanced evocation of the excitement provoked by superstar singers of the early eighteenth century in their adoring audiences. However, elaboration of the da capo section has primarily been understood as an addition of ornaments – trills, runs to fill in larger intervals, triplets in place of duplets, and so forth. The basic contour of the melody has generally been kept unchanged; elaboration has provided filigree to the melodic framework.

In this recording, Dantone and his cohort break from this practice; in doing so, they are taking a page from an approach recently chosen by instrumentalists in their work on baroque variation technique. At the heart of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century instrumental practice was the notion that a framework for variation is neither solely a melody nor just a bass line nor merely a chord structure, but all three simultaneously. A creative approach to ornamentation in such a context requires the ability to move freely between those three components – giving some space to the melody, but otherwise experimenting with the implications of the harmony and pushing the envelope on those implications.

It is not surprising that the idea of bringing such an approach to da capo vocal elaboration should come from Dantone, since – while he is a self-styled neophyte with Vivaldian opera – for more than two decades he has been a prizewinning harpsichordist and teacher of both basso continuo and improvisation practice. At the helm of the Accademia Bizantina, Dantone has directed (among other projects) a remarkable recording of the complete works of Corelli in which he very successfully coaches his ensemble in experimenting with the kind of instrumental elaboration for which the Roman violin virtuoso was justly renowned in his day. Indeed, in a brief interview published in the CD booklet for Tito Manlio, Dantone takes full credit for devising the approach (“I wrote the Da Capos for my singers…”). It is a little bit disappointing to think that the verve with which the da capo elaborations are presented in this recording was so carefully staged, and not devised by the vocalists themselves. However, it is also true that singers today are less versed in improvised elaboration than the virtuosi whom Benedetto Marcello instructed, tongue-in-cheek, in his satire of operatic practice Il teatro alla moda, first published just a couple of years before the première of Tito Manlio: “When the da capo returns, [the singer] will change the entire aria as it suits him, and even though the changed version will have no correspondence with the bass or the violin parts, and the tempo will have to be changed, that doesn’t matter, because the composer (as we have said above) is resigned to this.” (Benedetto Marcello, Il teatro alla moda, introduzione di Sergio Miceli [Roma, Castelvecchi: 1993], 50; my translation.)

Dantone’s approach to “chang[ing] the entire aria” is perhaps most dramatic in Servilia’s aria “Andrò fida e sconsolata” from Act II, scene 14. This is a particularly opportune aria for “framework experimentation”, since the melody instruments (violins, recorders) do not just provide the refrains that punctuate the aria (as is standard in most of Vivaldi’s da capo works) but play “colla parte” (i.e. with the singer) throughout. This constant musical doubling is a resource for Dantone, since by the beginning of the singer’s entrance in the da capo he quickly shifts the rhythmic pattern of the vocal part, allowing the instruments to remind us of Vivaldi’s melody while Hallenberg adds an increasingly elaborate counterpoint to that original melody. Dantone’s sense of Vivaldi’s style is remarkably astute, and if one were not aware that the original aria calls for an exact repeat of the opening section, it would be possible to understand this as a formal experiment on Vivaldi’s part … that is to say, an aria with a composed-out alteration of the da capo, something that Handel occasionally did later in his career (for example in the famous entrance aria for Cleopatra in his Giulio Cesare). Dantone’s experiment with “Andrò fida” is not just musically powerful but also artistically important because it allows us a glimpse into the dynamic possibilities of the da capo form, which to this day is often understood as a static structure, even despite our growing sophistication in the use of ornamentation practice.

Marcello’s sly dig at the “ignorant” singers who reconfigure the da capo with little regard to harmony or instrumental obbligati is almost certainly as much an overstatement as the rest of his fabulously funny pamphlet, since the great virtuosi of the Italian operatic stage spent many years studying harmony and counterpoint (and harpsichord, and often other instruments as well) as part of their vocal training. We may well imagine that Farinelli, Caffarelli, Faustina, and the other great male and female stars of their day could readily improvise appropriately over a given harmonic framework, and deployed that skill in elaborating the da capo well beyond a handful of trills and runs. If Dantone was indeed instrumental (!) in shaping his singers’ decisions on the da capo for this recording, one can hope that they (and other vocal superstars of our own time) will take up the challenge of “changing the entire aria as it suits [them]”, further bringing out the dynamic potential of Baroque da capo form.

Andrew Dell'Antonio
Head, Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division
School of Music
The University of Texas at Austin

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