The birth of Vivaldian opera
The premiere of Ottone in villa at Vicenza on 17 May 1713 marks the official starting point of Vivaldi’s operatic career. The prete rosso was then thirty-five years old. An advanced age compared to that of most of his contemporaries when they made their debuts in the opera house. But an age consistent with his wish to focus his theatrical activity on Venice and establish a long-term presence there as both composer and operatic entrepreneur. In the stronghold of the dramma per musica that was La Serenissima at the time, where meteoric successes were as numerous as they were ephemeral and beginners rarely gained a lasting foothold, it was not the custom to rush things. Indeed, many of the local glories, not least Carlo Francesco Pollarolo and Francesco Gasparini, the two masters of early eighteenth-century Venetian opera, had faced audiences in the city only once they had reached maturity, and conquered their place in the Venetian theatres only after obtaining the seal of approval of a prestige post at one of its major institutions.
In this specific local context, bereft as he was of fortune and patrons, Vivaldi could not make his official entrance on the theatrical scene without going through several pre paratory stages, which were meticulously organised by his father and chaperon Giovanni Battista, a reputable violinist with an expert knowledge of Venetian musical life. The first stage was the ecclesiastical training that bestowed a social status on the young man; the second was the attainment of the coveted post of maestro di violino of the orchestra of the Pietà, which guaranteed him a prestigious paid job; then came the printed edition of his first volume of instrumental music, ensuring the diffusion of his composition. In this way the prete rosso built the solid base on which, after a long wait, he was to rely in launching his ‘real’ operatic career.
Life before the theatre
Though officially kept away from the world of opera by these years in which his strategy slowly came to fruition, and then by the requirements of his clerical status, Vivaldi nevertheless took every opportunity that came his way as he whiled away the long wait. He did so, above all, through his output of sonatas and concertos — wordless operas, brimming with affetti, which gave him initial scope for dramatic expression — but also through assiduous frequentation of the opera houses and orchestra pits, deciphering their codes and elaborating and verifying the validity of his developing theories. This practical training will have been accompanied by a theoretical one of which we know little, except that two teachers at least were doubtless responsible for it. The first of these was naturally his father, himself a musician in theatre orchestras and probably also a composer of operas. The second was very likely Francesco Gasparini, Vivaldi’s superior at the Pietà and a prolific composer of drammi per musica.
Without officially composing for the opera, Vivaldi also approached that still inaccessible universe by writing sacred or secular vocal works in response to private commissions. But, above all, he composed behind the scenes, anonymously or under assumed names, while champing at the operatic bit until 1713. For, like so many of his illustrious colleagues, he made his real debut as an opera composer by trying his hand at the job of ‘retouching’ scores, a thankless but extremely formative task which consisted in adapting an existing score or writing an entirely new work on behalf of someone else. Micky White, that indefatigable explorer of the Venetian archives, has recently discovered the documents of a lawsuit from 1706 between Vivaldi and the composer Girolamo Polani, with the former claiming a fee from the latter as payment for the composition of an opera called Cress tosto alle fiamme. It emerges from these papers that Polani, probably swamped by his obligations, had engaged the younger man as his musical ghost-writer. In execution of their agreement, the Teatro S. Angelo had offered its audience, in the autumn of 1705, an opera whose overture, its forty arias, its ritornellos and several sections of recitative had been composed … by Vivaldi, without his receiving any credit for the music! Contrary to appearances, it was therefore a musician seasoned by long practice of operatic composition who put an end in 1713 to what was officially a period entirely without theatrical activity. On 30 April of that year, Vivaldi asked his employers at the Pietà for a month’s leave of absence from his duties for the purposes of his ‘activities as a virtuoso’. This authorisation, which was granted on condition he took up his post again on his return ‘with care and rigour’, allowed him to go to Vicenza to busy himself with the gestation of Ottone in villa. Six months before introducing himself to the audiences of Venice with the first operas of which he claimed the paternity, Vivaldi therefore gave himself a dry run before the public of the republic’s hinterland. The Vicenzan Ottone was a prelude to the Venetian autumn.
The theatre of the thistle-removers
In 1713 Vicenza occupied an important place in the artistic life of the Veneto. Itself a living operatic stage with the natural decor formed by the Ionian façades of its Palazzo, laden with statues and trophies, the city had rapidly developed a solid theatrical tradition based at the Teatro Olimpico, the masterpiece of Palladio. However, it was away from this temple of the spoken theatre, too vast and costly, that the city had built up a decent operatic activity centred on the Teatro delle Garzerie. This small theatre, built around 1650 in the old woolworkers’ district and reconstructed in 1689 after a fire, owed its name to the ‘thistle-removers’ who had once worked on the site it occupied. Between the Piazzetta Palladio and the Piazza delle Erbe, this ‘Theatre of the thistle-removers’ paid symbolic homage in its name to the Vicenzan carders who had made the city’s fortunes in former days.
Archive documents give us a fairly precise image of this second Teatro delle Garzerie, more commonly called Teatro Nuovo di Piazza, which was to see the birth of Vivaldian opera. The façade of the edifice, simple in its architecture, faced south, opposite the Old Fish Market. The entrance to the building was distinguished by a sober portico which gave direct access to the staircase leading up to the theatre. Since the ground floor and the basement were occupied respectively by the caretakers’ lodgings and a public tavern, the theatre proper was limited to the upper floors of the building. In comparison with its Venetian counterparts, even the smallest, the new theatre of Vicenza was of decidedly modest dimensions. With its eighty-eight small boxes divided into four tiers, it could accommodate 700 spectators at the most, including the servants’ gallery. Everything there was cramped: the corridors leading to the boxes were less than a metre wide, while the boxes themselves offered an opening onto the stage of less than 1.25 metres. But the decoration of the auditorium by painters Pietro and Giuseppe Paresanti did not lack refinement. Giovanni Mocenigo Juniore has left us a precise and touching description of it in his short history of the theatres of Vicenza, in which he mentions notably the parapets of the boxes, painted with a variety of chiaroscuro figures and, in the centre, the coat of arms and device of the families who owned them.
La guerra dei palchi
Too close to Venice to hope to compete with that city’s many prestigious theatres, Vicenza had adjusted the rhythm of its seasons to that of the Venetian houses, and presented most of its operatic productions outside the Carnival periods. Hence the directors of the Garzerie could take on companies of singers on their way to or from Venice, in a commercial logic satisfying for all parties. The theatre had chosen to hold its principal season during the fair in the month of May, when it mostly staged revivals of works premiered in Venice or neighbouring cities. However, this tranquil existence was drastically disrupted in 1711 with the edification of a new vast and luxurious theatre whose owners named it Teatro delle Grazie in an obvious allusion to the existing house. The new building, which boasted 104 boxes, was inaugurated with great pomp in an exceptional season given during the 1713 Carnival. This was a severe blow to the Teatro delle Garzerie, which chose to react in spectacular fashion the following season by putting on Vivaldi’s Ottone in villa. A doubly spectacular event, since this work which marked the first official incursion of the famous prete rosso into opera was also the first commission awarded by the theatre since its reopening in 1689.
To ensure the success of this strategic undertaking, Vivaldi and the owners of the Garzerie chose their singers with great care. The cast of Ottone was headed by Maria Giusti, nicknamed ‘La Romanina’, a renowned virtuoso who had participated in the triumphal opening of the rival house during the previous Carnival. Her engagement for Ottone in villa therefore constituted a major asset for the Teatro delle Garzerie, which thus secured the talents of an experienced singer much appreciated by the Vicenzan public while also allowing itself the luxury of revenge on its competitor. Alongside her, Vivaldi had the celebrated contralto Diana Vico (later to sing Dardano in Handel’s Amadigi) in the title role and the promising young castrato Bartolomeo Bartoli in the virtuoso part of Caio. The soprano Margarita Faccioli as Tullia and the Roman tenor Gaetano Mozzi as Decio completed this compact but prestigious cast.
Heroism, eroticism, and tragicomedy
Vivaldi and the owners of the Teatro delle Garzerie increased the appeal of their season by joining forces with the daring librettist Domenico Lalli. With Ottone in villa, based on the plot of Francesco Maria Piccioli’s more than thirty-year-old libretto Messalina, Lalli could hardly be said to have opted for the side of virtue. His skilful reworking of his source, developing the subplots and sharpening the psychological portraits, made Ottone a spicy, provocative work. This drama-cum-farce, founded on a plot that was simple in principle but complex in its developments, rejoiced in (indeed seemed almost to extol) vice, amorous infidelity, sexual ambiguity, and deceptions which in scene after scene thwart the expression of the passions and sentiments of the protagonists. Until finally each of these characters, revealed or unmasked, returns to his or her legitimate love, thus granting morality and good taste a token victory.
With its numerous anti-heroic features and its omnipresent eroticism; combined with bucolic elements and multiple influences from the Arcadian reform, the libretto of Ottone provided an audacious example of a confrontation between the old Venetian tradition and the Arcadian model, thus illustrating the type of heroi-comic opera Vivaldi was to remain fond of throughout his career. Closer to pastoral than to tragedy, the work was tailor-made for the small theatre of a small city catering for an audience of aristocrats who were themselves in villa, come to enjoy the delights of spring in the countryside. Vivaldi was obviously thoroughly convinced by Lalli’s language and his chosen themes. For the score of Ottone in villa is a tyro effort that at once proclaims the master, a genuine little gem that explores with finesse the subtle workings of this unusual libretto. Right from the first bars of the exhilarating opening sinfonia, dominated by playful jousting between solo oboe and violin, the composer imposes his inimitable style, heady with rhythms and contrasts, full of marvellous melodic vigour. And as soon as the curtain rises, the music is placed wholly at the service of the drama. In this first opera, Vivaldi displays a remarkable ability to convey the essence of a sentiment, a breath of passion, a shiver of emotion, in a few simple, but apt and touching notes.
Through the choice of a pitch, an accent or a rest, the line of a theme or the contour of a modulation, the composer portrays the psychological truth of an instant with astounding subtlety. Take for example the opera’s very first aria, ‘Quanto m’alletta’, in which the voluptuous Cleonilla coquettishly evokes her amorous passions. In a transparent poetic allusion, Ottone’s favourite mischievously tells us how alluring she finds ‘dewy grass’ and the ‘pretty flower’, and the music which Lalli’s sensual text drew from Vivaldi admirably illustrates her psychological state. In a succession of swaying and capricious string figures, using piquant appoggiaturas and coaxing melismas, Vivaldi delights in depicting the languid sighs and impish pouts of this devastatingly attractive epicurean. Thus, within the space of a few bars, the (im)moral framework of the opera is set out, accompanied by the assertion of a dazzling theatricality which will be confirmed throughout the work. From start to finish of this Ottone, in colourful, incisive strokes, the inimitable prete rosso imposes his style with boldness and brio.
As is often the case with Vivaldi’s operas, no trace of the performances of May 1713 has survived. Although some musicologists have maintained that Ottone may have been revived at Vicenza in 1714 and again in 1716, this cannot be supported by documentary evidence because of the gaps in the collections of librettos of operas performed there in the early eighteenth century, and must therefore remain no more than a hypothesis. If it could be confirmed, then these repeat performances would obviously prove that the first run was a success. So much is indeed suggested by several indications, particularly the fact that Vivaldi was in a position to launch his brilliant double career as impresario and opera composer in Venice just a few months later, and the wide diffusion enjoyed by many arias from Ottone, which were taken up again not only by the composer himself but also by others, notably in London and Hamburg. We may add to these elements the revival of the opera at Treviso in 1729 in a modified version supervised by the composer himself, as is shown by the revision of the original manuscript.
One last clue: towards the end of June 1713, Vivaldi had an oratorio entitled La victoria navale performed in Vicenza on the occasion of the religious festivities organised by the church of. Santa Corona. Although we do not know exactly when he received this commission, it is possible that it came after the premiere of Ottone in villa and was a direct consequence of the opera’s favourable reception, in which case the Dominicans must have wanted to seize the opportunity to benefit from the favourable wind which had just borne the composer’s first operatic venture. Whatever the truth of the matter, a contemporary source relates that during these religious festivities, Vivaldi played ‘his miraculous violin’ and ‘received a great deal of applause’ in the Vicenzan church when he produced ‘an echo between the great organ and his violin’. Even when he was alone with his instrument, the man who had just ensured the birth of his operatic career was still an eminently theatrical creature.