Virtuosity and dramatic truth
Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly… Antonio Vivaldi to Guido Bentivoglio Verona, 3 May 1737.
In Vicenza in May 1713 the opera Ottone in Villa was produced for the first time. It was the work of a thirty-five-year-old Venetian composer who had already gained a reputation with his collections of sonatas and concertos, and who held the post of maestro di violino at the Ospedale della.Pietà in Venice.
From then on, Antonio Vivaldi’s life would be closely bound up with the theatre, both as composer and impresario, not only of his own operas but also for stage works either partly or entirely composed by other musicians. In a letter of 1737, he would describe himself as a “freelance entrepreneur”.
Few of Vivaldi’s operas were staged without his direct supervision, for he took great pains over their production and treated them as his own personal property in order to ensure their success, and also to ensure that the performances were faithful to the score. The interest in his compositions is shown by the many arias which appeared, either in their original form or arranged for voice and continuo, in various collections throughout Europe.
The arias in this recording are taken from a number of operas, from L’ Orlando finto pazzo (1714) to Griselda (1735), and cover the greater part of Vivaldi’s activity as an opera composer, especially for theatres in Rome, Mantua, Pavia, Verona and, of course, Venice.. The composer’s native Venice had been the first city in the world to build an opera house open to the paying public.
Some of the arias are scored for strings and continuo alone, others require obbligato instruments. An example of the litter is “Di due rai languir costante” (3), where two flageolets (a sort of small recorder) play semiquaver, figurations which weave with the vocal line to express the torments – not so far removed from the pleasures — of love. The Arcadian atmosphere is further stressed by the sound of muted violins and pizzicato violas and cellos. Unfortunately, we do not know which opera this aria was composed for, since it appears only in a collection of separate pieces which Vivaldi compiled around 1720, probably for his own use The same collection also contains “Zeffiretti, che sussurrate” 0, a three-part aria which, with slight changes, was used in the opera Ercole sul Termodonte in 1723. The version recorded here requires two solo violins (playing on stage) and two obbligato harpsichords in addition to the normal string orchestra. These extra instruments serve to convey the voice of nature, amplifying the emotions; of the character who is singing and, by means of echo effects which repeat only the final part of the words, expressing the deeper meaning of what is being sung. In the siciliana section nature falls silent, giving way o a very human sensuality.
Nature is not always a benign presence, particularly for a man of the early eighteenth century who lived in such close contact with nature in all its aspects. Hence the “storm” arias, which for the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi always meant storms at sea. In actual fact, these are never intended as true representations of nature, but serve as metaphors to express, the passions and sufferings of human characters. This is certainly the case with “Anch’il mar par che sommerga” (12) , a bravura aria written for the castrato Giovanni Manzoli. By means of an almost uninterrupted series of coloratura passages and repeated trills it evokes in the mind of the listener that sense of wonder that was so central to the aesthetics of the Baroque period. “Dopo un’orrida procella” (2) was also written for a castrato voice and requires, in addition to the usual strings, a pair of horns. From the very first bar their clamorous sound vividly re-creates the terror of the storm; they calm down when the text moves on to more peaceful images. The vocal line is rich in coloratura passages, but its most striking feature is the wide leaps, which in some cases cover an interval of a twelfth.
Images taken from life at sea also appear in arias of a more straightforward character, such as “Sventurata navicella” (8) which Vivaldi extracted (with some slight changes in both text and music) from his Orlando finto pazzo of 1714. The reuse of previously composed arias in operas for which they were not originally intended should cause no surprise. It was a common practice at the time, since the individual arias were designed to convey a certain number of basic emotions which would recur in all operas. In thè 1714 autograph there is a note referring to this aria which reads: “If this does not please, I dó not want to compose-any more music”. Indeed, if “Sventurata navicella” might seem disarmingly ‘simple at first hearing, it actually features a number of small shifts in the melodic line — corresponding to certain key .words in the text — which make it utterly original.
“Siam navi all’onde algenti” (10), written for the castrato Marianino Nicolini, is an example of Vivaldi’s encounter with the poetry of Pietro Metastasio, the greatest eighteenth-century writer of opera libretti. The opening recitative takes us into the Venetian composer’s creative workshop. Indeed, Vivaldi’s own interpretation of Metastasio’s text is very personal, completely overturning that sense of a contemplation of human affairs present in the original. With his setting of a few new lines, Vivaldi creates a sense of turbulence which breaks out directly in the aria. It is now the “folly of love” that
determines the constant state of agitation which Aminta’s aria expresses so well by means of musical figurations which exploit every hint in the literary text and exalt its dramatic meaning.
Changes of this type are by no means uncommon in Vivaldi’s operas.. We do not know whether such alterations, which involved substituting or changing arias and recitatives, were made directly by the composer himself, or by the librettists he was working with at the time. We can be certain, however, that nothing of the sort occurred with La fida ninfa. Vivaldi was invited to Verona to set a libretto which had already been in print for some time. It was the work of the Veronese nobleman and philologist Scipione Maffei, who also acted as impresario for the opening of the new Teatro Filarmonico designed by Francesco Bibiena. Morasto’s aria “Dite, oimè” (7) displays a Vivaldi who, through a vocal line and a simple bass continuo, manages to depict in music that streak of melancholy lyricism which would later appear in the paintings of Francesco Guardi.
A very different emotion inspires “Alma oppressa” (6), an aria which carries vocal virtuosity to an extreme level. It is .a virtuosity completely at the service of dramatic expression. By means of chromaticism and an almost unbroken line of semiquavers, Vivaldi perfectly brings to life the tragic, nature of Licori’s character.
The same tragic power, though achieved by other means, is to be found in “Anderò, volerò, griderò” (4). It is preceded by a dramatic recitative in which Origille discovers the bodies of her beloved Grifone and of Tigrinda rendered lifeless by the enchantress Ersilla. Following this introduction, the thrilling Presto, with its striking. orchestral accompaniment, is one of the finest examples of the “spoken” style of aria which occurs throughout Vivaldi’s operas, particularly in music written for the voice of Anna Girò.
“Di trombe guerriere” (13) was written for the soprano Margherita Gualandi, who worked frequently with Vivaldi in Mantua, Venice and Milan. It is a typical martial aria scored for . trumpets, timpani and oboes in addition to a full body of strings. Vivaldi’s reputation nowadays rests firmly on his concertos The Four Seasons, which were published in Amsterdam in 1725 as part of his Opus 8. At the time, these concertos were a decisive factor in spreading the Venetian composer’s fame, so it is not surprising to find him quoting themes from the Seasons, particularly: if we bear in mind how common it was at the time to re-use previously composed music.
The opening chorus of Dorilla in Tempe, “Dell’aura al sussurrar” (1), is based on the beginning of the Spring concerto. It could hardly be- a more appropriate choice, since this “melodramma eroico pastorale” opens with a hymn to Spring sung by nymphs and shepherds happily dancing in flowery meadows.
The repeated notes of the first movement of the Winter concerto re-appear in “Gelido in ogni vena” (11): This is an aria “d’ombra”, which has a power of expression and dramatic impact unique in Vivaldi’s operatic output, and indeed occupies a special place in the whole musical literature of the first half of the eighteenth century. Farnace stands before a tomb which he believes to be that of his only son. His anguish is conveyed by the glassy. timbre .of the strings which suddenly, at the word “terror”, break out into a forte with the intensity of a scream of pain. The descending chromaticism and distorted harmonies add further pathos to an aria whose slow progress expresses the burden of real tragedy.
Where Farnace gives way to despair in “Gelido in ogni vena”, Giustino, in “Ho nel petto un cor sì forte” E, declares his confidence in his own courage almost as a gesture of defiance against destiny. Vivaldi composes an aria which unfolds calmly, as though to symbolise Giustino’s strength of mind. He adds, however, a special tone colour: that of the psaltery, an instrument whose strings are struck with small wooden mallets. Together with the pizzicato violins, this fragile sound seems very remote from the mood expressed by the. words,. and this significant contrast leads us to wonder about the hero’s true state of mind. Once again, the combination words and music indissolubly blended together allows us to glimpse some deeper truth.
Translation DECCA 1999 Andrew Huth