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Ercole sul Termodonte di Antonio Vivaldi (Foto (c) Michele Crosera)
22 Oct 2007

Biondi’s Labors Won, or Unearthing The Lost Vivaldi

An expedition against the famed warring women, the Amazons, ranking as Hercules’ ninth labor out the canonic twelve, provided the subject for the libretto by Antonio Salvi (not Giacomo Francesco Bussani, as hitherto misattributed) that Vivaldi set to music in 1723 as his own sixteenth operatic labor.

Antonio Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte, 6 October 2007
Antonio Vivaldi, Bajazet, 7 October 2007

Teatro Malibran, Venice
A Fondazione La Fenice production

Above: Photo © Michele Crosera


Rome’s Teatro Tordinona was the ordering venue, thus bringing gender ambiguity to a peak, due to the papal ban preventing women from appearing onstage in the Holy City. What the original Roman audience actually saw and heard was a bunch of seven castrati, partly disguised as ladies in androgynous warriors’ costumes, partly as heroes of Ancient Greece - all of them warbling in soprano and alto pitches around one single tenor impersonating the most macho character imaginable, Hercules. To make things even worse, on the podium stood a Catholic priest, Vivaldi himself, acting in the many capacities of composer, conductor, solo violinist - and probably also stage director. Suspension of disbelief, albeit on the basis of lip-service to morals, was apparently much needed…

The pendulum has now swung so far that, having to dispense with the unavailable castrati, Fabio Biondi selected no less than five ladies, plus one countertenor - and yes! two tenors, one of them very high-pitched — for the world premiere revival of the same opera. Since not any complete score of it is extant, Biondi undertook one more labor, that is tentatively reconstructing one from the sets of detached arias preserved in the libraries of Paris, Münster, Turin and several other locations, then discarding and substituting some of them for the sake of inner balance and, last but not least, composing all the missing recitatives. This bears witness to the situation recently described by the Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot: “Today, there is not one performable Vivaldi opera that someone has not staged somewhere, and those still desirous of novelty for its own sake are now forced to explore the margins of his operatic output where fragmentary works or works of multiple authorship reside. Even there, it has grown hard to discover material for a genuine prima assoluta”.

Was the whole painstaking process worth trying? Judging from the results, it was. Vivaldi’s Ercole according to Biondi (different reconstructions might be attempted, and probably will, sooner or later) fits well into the general pattern of Venetian baroque opera prior to the Metastasio-Hasse-Farinelli revolution, which was due to start very soon, in the late 1720s. It exhibits most features thereof: mainly the intricacies in the plot and sub-plots, which result in mixed styles of singing, ranging from quasi-comic through amorous, to utterly heroic or tragic, sometimes all within the same character. In other words, variety pays a premium over dramatic consistency or psychological credibility. Thus, for instance, the title-role Ercole aptly delivers a row of warlike and menacing arias as he keeps clubbing his way to the final triumph; nevertheless, he also produces himself in a sort of love lesson paternally delivered to Martesia, an Amazon princess who ignores the very basics of marriage and wavers between the competing Greek princes Alceste and Telamone, both in love with her. Enhanced by the charm of Vivaldi’s compelling rhythms, unison accompaniments, colorful orchestral palette, all that amounted to some three hours of sheer, if not particularly highbrow, entertainment. Needless to say, lovers’ complaints, warriors’ bravados, last-minute rescues — and an unusually high rate of battle scenes involving brasses and kettledrums — led to the unavoidable happy end, when peace was restored and sealed with a double marriage.

Among the singing company, high praise was due to both Amazon queens (and sisters), mezzo Romina Basso as Antiope and soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Ippolita, for their unfailing intonation and agility, clear diction, style competence and acting stamina. The same was true for Laura Polverelli in the trousers role of Alceste, prince of Sparta, as well as for tenor Carlo Allemano in the title-role, who displayed a doughy quasi-baritone register and a bodily appearance well matching the muscular demi-god he was supposed to impersonate. Pity that the young and lovely soubrette Stefanie Irányi as Martesia, reportedly impaired by a cold, was a bit short of breath now and then. Nor did the mellifluous Catalan countertenor Jordi Domènech (Teseo), just perfect as a subdued lover, sound fully up to the requirements of an hero, mainly because of lacking dynamic variety. Both Emanuela Galli as Orizia and Mark Milhofer as Telamone got going very hard, yet their vocal technique still needs some refinement in order to meet the stipulations of this particular repertoire.

In the (Vivaldi-like) double bill of conductor and first violin, occasionally also grabbing the viola d’amore, Biondi led the performance with a relentless overall pulse, a nuanced choice of tempi and, most notably, a careful insight into the singers’ needs for breath and action — nowadays not a terribly common feature among opera conductors, whether of period bands or regular pit orchestras. His Europa Galante sounded like a large multi-register theorbo struck by a single hand: an amazing outcome, considering the frequent turnover of instrumentalists within its ranks. Biondi has clearly got a signature sound, one of the most exciting in the early music scene today — to say nothing of his individual prowess on the baroque violin.

Generally appreciated were the costumes, a mixture of fanciful 18th-century fashions and military paraphernalia much in the guise of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Some disappointment was instead caused by the fixed set which, according to ongoing anticipations, was due to be part of an historically informed staging care of the Arts Faculty, University of Venice, under the supervision of Walter Le Moli, a respected professional. Actually, it was all about huge square portals in the mould of stock Neoclassic, providing functional in-and-out access to the backstage. No machines, no decorations, no spectacular effects whatsoever.


The same set was re-used for the ensuing Bajazet, less than a novelty for early opera freaks since Biondi’s award-winning recording released in 2005 by Virgin, yet still a rarely staged title. (Back in 1994, this writer attended a fully-staged production under the alternative title Il Tamerlano — at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico where it originally had premiered in 1735, but the singers were hardly historically informed).

As it turned out, the present Venice production was only semi-staged, with the characters dressed in modern black attires as if for a formal cocktail party, and all of the action revolving, in a rather indecipherable manner, around a Victorian-style couch in red velvet. Once again, the real centerpiece was the singing cast, studded with heavier sounding women’s voices. The barbaric warlord Tamerlano was Daniela Barcellona, towering for her imposing physical shape no less than for the force and precision of her deep mezzo. As the destitute Little Orphan Asteria, Marina De Liso unfolded hot temperament and versatility in her four widely diverse arias. As Prince Andronico, Lucia Cirillo delivered a passionate rendering of “La sorte mia spietata”, a Vivaldi borrowing from Hasse’s Siroe. Notoriously, Bajazet is a thoroughgoing pasticcio, in which several arias are favorites of the singers themselves, a.k.a. arie di baule, mostly in the ‘new’ Neapolitan style. This doesn’t apply to the unfortunate Bajazet, who, besides one exciting showpiece from Vivaldi’s own Motezuma (“Dov’è la figlia?”), is just allotted a row of angry utterances or frantic vocal gesticulations with very little thematic substance in them. Despite that, tenor Christian Senn emerged with full honors from his unrewarding part.

The sole survivor from the 2005 recording was Vivica Genaux, in the not-so-important role of Irene. However, her appearance raised an unprecedented salvo of curtain calls among the demanding operagoers of Venice. Clad in a funereal black attire vaguely resembling a chador, the Alaskan mezzo machine-gunned an incredible amount of vocal pyrotechnics in “Qual guerriero in campo armato”, the treacherous coloratura piece written by Riccardo Broschi for his brother Farinelli, bristling with inter-registral leaps extending over two and a half octaves and featuring endless florid passages in semiquavers. In contrast, another Farinelli suitcase aria, “Sposa, son disprezzata” (by Geminiano Giacomelli), gave evidence for her deep dramatic potential and faultless legato technique. During the intermissions, there was much arguing among the patrons about the frantic quivering motions of her lips and lower jaw. While some cognoscenti tended to identify a technical device for hitting each note more clearly and precisely (“finding the position”), others called that a disturbing mess or a pointless mannerism. The dispute was solved by an old gentleman who suggested with a meek smile: “Perhaps she’s not from Alaska, but from somewhere in the outer space: the Planet of Steel Nightingales...”.

Carlo Vitali © 2007

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