Saturday, 21 February 2015

Pure entertainment - Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia at the Barbican

Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante and cast of Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia at the Barbican - photo Mark Allan/Barbican
Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante
and cast of Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia at the Barbican
photo Mark Allan/Barbican
Vivaldi L'Oracolo in Messenia; Staveland, Kielland, Genaux, Europa Galante, Biondi; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Pure entertainment and stunning performances in this operatic pasticcio by Vivaldi

Vivaldi's opera L'Oracolo in Messenia was written in 1738, in something of a hurry after Vivaldi speedily assembled a Venetian opera season after plans for an opera season in Ferrara failed. He based it on a libretto going back to 1712, by Apostolo Zeno, which had been used in a number of more recent settings including that of Giacomelli which had great success in Venice in 1734. Vivaldi thought sufficient of his opera to revise it and take it to Vienna in 1740, but he did not live to see it performed as the death of the Emperor closed theatres.

Magnus Staveland, Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante - Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia at the Barbican - photo Mark Allan/Barbican
Magnus Staveland, Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante
photo Mark Allan/Barbican
Like many of Vivaldi's operas, only the libretto has survived. But L'Oracolo in Messenia was in fact a pasticcio, an assemblage of pre-existing music with Vivaldi relying heaving on Giacomelli's setting. This has enabled Fabio Biondi to reconstruct the score of the Vienna version of L'Oracolo in Messenia. He and his group Europa Galante recorded it in 2012, and they now brought it in concert to the Barbican Hall (20 February 2015) with a strong international cast (two Norwegians, an American, an Italian, a Russian, a German and a Briton) including Magnus Staveland, Marianne Beate Kielland, Vivica Genaux, Marina de Liso, Julia Lezhneva, Franziska Gottwald and Rupert Enticknap.

It is difficult for us to comprehend nowadays quite how 18th century audiences listened to and apprehended opera, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it was very much a case of 'the play's the thing'. The dominant factor was the libretto - the dramatic situations, text and characters, and then the style of the music with the composer coming a poor third. So Vivaldi gave his audience what they wanted, and used vivid plots to which he wrote toe-tapping music. His operas can seem to have less theatrical depth than say, one of Handel's large scale serious operas like Tamerlano, but Handel was very much sui generis.

Marina de Liso and Vivica Genaux - Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia at the Barbican - photo Mark Allan/Barbican
Marina de Liso and Vivica Genaux
photo Mark Allan/Barbican
For L'Oracolo in Messenia we got some of Vivaldi's finest operatic music, taken from his operas Atenaide, Motezuma, Farnace, Dorilla in tempe and Semiramide, along with music from Hasse's Siroe, re di persia, and Giacomelli's 1734 setting of the libretto, with the recitatives being based on the Giacomelli opera.

Whilst the result had its own vivid theatrical life, and was certainly worthy of recording, a nagging voice in my head did constantly worry as to why the expense of a high-profile concert tour was being undertaken for something which fundamentally a patchwork re-construction of a Carnival jeu d'esprit, rather than one of the Vivaldi's own operas, most of which are still not well known. And though the audience was good, the Barbican hall wasn't anything like full. The combination of Biondi, Europa Galante, a strong cast led by Vivica Genaux and the music of Vivaldi, all failed to bring in a full house.

The problem with listening to a reconstruction is that I don't know whether to complain about Vivaldi, or about Fabio Biondi's editorial work, but the opera did have some strangenesses. There was inevitably a lot of recitative, this we expect from Italian operas written for Italy, where the audience listened to them as musical plays. But the distribution of arias was patchy to say the least, with whole scenes going by without any and then a whole cluster. The worst offender here was the end of act two where we seemed to have far too many arias after the main plot had finished. The balance of arias between the acts was similarly unbalanced, with Act One having six (in 50 minutes of music), Act Two having ten (in 60 minutes of music) and Act Three having six (in 45 minutes of music) and the climactic final scene was entirely in recitative. In concert, the opera was frankly too long and we could have done with losing some of the arias from Act Two.

The performance worked because the singers took the piece at its own value and gave us a superbly dramatic account of the text and the recitative, punctuated by showy arias designed to impress and entertain. For me, the handling of the recitative and the drama was some of the best things about the performance with the three principals (Magnus Staveland as Polifonte, Marianne Beata Kielland as Merope and Vivica Genaux as Epitide) really creating a vivid and highly involving drama.

The plot was the usual early 18th century (well pre-Metastasio) lively complexity. With Polifonte (Magnus Staveland) as a usurper King who had killed the previous King and was pursuing his widow, Merope (Maranne Beate Kielland). Merope and her husband's sole surviving son, Epitide, has been brought up abroad and returns in disguise. His beloved, Emira (Marina de Liso) is a captive of Polifonte, other characters include Trasimede (Julia Lezhneva), who is Merope's confidant and Licisco (Franziska Gottwald) who is Emira's father's ambassador. The plot involves the killing of a boar (off stage, by Epitide), Merope believe the disguised Epitide is her son's killer and sentencing him to death.

But central to the whole plot is the nasty scheming of King Polifonte, a wonderful operatic villain. Here he was wonderfully incarnated by Magnus Staveland, giving us a vivid and involving portrait of a tyrant. His arias were rarely showy, but they were theatrically vivid so that his first second act aria had a rather plain vocal line complemented by a strikingly imaginative orchestral accompaniment. In fact, much of the interest of the evening came from the orchestra as Vivaldi repeatedly gave his arias toe-tapping accompaniments and striking ritornellos.

Marianne Beate Kielland was stunning as Merope, the tragic figure who is out for revenge, trusts no-one and is tricked by Polifonte into ordering the death of her son. Kielland sang with a fabulously firm tone and vibrant voice, imaginatively creating dramatic moments out of each aria. She crowned this with the stunning long accompanied recitative, almost a mad scene, which followed the revelation that she had ordered the death of her son. If the following aria was less innovative it was still highly vivid.

Whilst Giacomelli's setting of the opera had been called Merope, it is clear that for Vivaldi the leading character was Epitide. He is very much an action man, killing boars etc, but as is the way in these operas is no match for the scheming of Polifonte and it takes the skill of others to release him from the toils and give us a happing ending. But along the way we got some superbly expressive music. Vivica Genaux is adept at performing this style of music, and she did so with fluency. Her passage-work was even and vivid, whilst her voice was vibrant. Always expressive she seemed gifted with the ability of making the music powerful whatever the music, and crowned this with a stunningly powerful final aria, sung when Epitide has tried to reveal who he really is to his mother, but has not been revealed.

The smaller roles were all graced with fine arias as well. Marina de Liso made a a fine Emira, singing her three arias with finely vibrant voice, poignancy and sometimes some vigour. But the opera fails to make the most of the dramatic possibilities of this role and I did rather wish the lovers had been allowed a duet in the scene where they recognise each other in Act two. Julia Lezhneva played Trasimede, which was technically a minor role but graced with two virtuoso arias (one written for Farinelli by his brother). This Lezhneva sang with stunning technical virtuosity taking the arias at breakneck pace and singing with incredible control and skill. She brought the house down both times, but it had a disturbing hint of circus trick about it, with the music lacking dramatic context. Franziska Gottwald as the ambassador Licisco (a character who was rather more dramatically involved than one might have expected), gave some of the most poised, finely controlled stylish singing of the evening. Yes, the character's arias were sometimes there for little dramatic import, but Gottwald sang them so musically and in so involving way that you listened.

Anassandro is the turncoat who has been doing much of Polifonte's dirty work for him. He is another nasty piece of work, and though not a large role Rupert Enticknapp made his performance count and his aria at the end of Act Two (another of those without much dramatic import) was a wonderful combination of the vicious and the showy.

As you may have realised from reading the above, the cast of seven included only two female characters with three men played by women. There was also a preponderance of voices in the mezzo-soprano/alto range, with only Julia Lezhneva being a high soprano though I suspect that the role of Merope may have been labelled soprano in Vivaldi's day. The cross-dressing characters all wore trousers with a wonderful variety of styles.

The opera was given with surtitles, which was essential because the house lights were taken down so that it was not possible to check who was whom in the programme. Another moan, the programme gave us the characters names but not who they were. In an unfamiliar opera, it would surely have been helpful to know that Magnus Staveland played Polifonte, King of Messenia, whilst Marianne Beate Keilland played Merope, widowed Queen of Messenia etc.

Directed from the violin by Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante was on strong form and make the evening one of vivid orchestral colour as they grasped all the opportunities which Vivaldi gave them. There were lots of toe-tapping passages, crisp passage-work, fine rasping horns and superbly involving playing. Biondi's speeds were on the brisk side, and though I would have welcomed a little relaxation, the players were certainly not phased.

As entertainment, Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia was very much Game of Thrones or Wolf Hall, intelligent entertainment rather than anything deeper. If you took at on its own terms, then this performance showcase some vivid music and superb performances.

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