Friday 22 February 2008

Review of Tito Manlio

(A slightly late posting I'm afraid, we've been rather busy preparing tomorrow's concert at St. Peter's Eaton Square)

Considering his popularity in other areas, Vivaldi's operas have still not made it into the mainstream of baroque opera going. I can remember the Camden Festival staging one of his works, but that was the oratorio Juditha Triumphans. The Accademia Bizantina's visit to the Barbican on Tuesday 16th February bringing a concert performance of Vivaldi's opera seria Tito Manlio gave us Londoners a rare opportunity to hear one of his major opera serias live.

The Accademia Bizantina, under Ottavio Dantone, have recorded the opera as part of the impressive ongoing Vivaldi edition on the naive label. Tuesday's cast though had only 1 or 2 singers from the recording.

Though Vivaldi did write operas for Venice, he found himself at odds with his audience and accepted a post in Mantua where the Landgrave of Hesse was the Austrian Governor. Vivaldi wrote a series of operas for performance in Mantua under the Landgrave's patronage and Tito Manlio was the 2nd of these.

It was planned as part of the Landgrave's wedding celebrations but when these fell through, the planned staging was shelved. Though the opera might have been given in a simplified form. The libretto, by the Neapolitan writer Matteo Noris, was a pre-existing one which Vivaldi adapted. Based on an episode in Livy it describes the family struggles between the Roman consul Tito Manlio and his son, during the early days of the Roman Republic.

The opera was presented as part of the Barbican's 'Great Performers' series and as such programmes were free. They did contain an excellent article on Vivaldi and the circumstances of the opera's gestation. But there was not plot summary. This was a grave disadvantage in an unfamiliar opera. Luckily there were surtitles, admirably comprehensive; also the performers had taken the precaution of having the female singers who played male characters all wearing trousers.

The plot covers the struggle between Romans and Latins; the opera opens with consul Tito Manlio (Carlo Lepore) proclaiming that every Roman must vow to support Rome and not the Latins. This causes trouble in his own family as his son Manlio (Karina Gauvin) is in love with a Latin, Servilia (Ann Hallenberg), and Tito's daughter Vitellia is in love with another Latin, Servilia's brother Geminio (Mark Milhofer). Another Latin, Lucio (Roberta Invernizzi) is also in love with Vitellia.

For the first act and the opening of the Act 2, Vivaldi manages to fit in an enormous amount of plot, there are numerous familial comings and goings as some family members support the vow and others not. Tito sends his son to treat with the Latins; Manlio meets Servilia's brother Geminio who baits him. Act 2 opens with Manlio's return to Rome and his admission that he has slain Geminio. His sister Vitellia is furious as is his lover Servilia. His father too, insists that Manlio has broken the law, having been instructed not to fight or provoke the Latins.

Manlio is clapped in irons and put into jail. For the remainder of the opera (a further 90 minutes of music) the plot, such as it is, centres around the conflicted reactions of Manlio and his family to his imprisonment.

Writing for a celebratory occasion, Vivaldi uses a wide instrumental palate with trumpets, horns, oboes, recorders and a kettle drum. The arias are all richly and brilliantly orchestrated and many have substantial instrumental obbligatos. The Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone played the music brilliantly and were a constant pleasure to listen to.

Vivaldi seems to respond to voices in a similar instrumental fashion. His vocal lines are often brilliant, virtuosic and well nigh impossible to sing. Dantone was blessed with a cast who seemed to be able to make light of the virtuoso difficulties.

Karina Gauvin as Manlio was brilliant. In the first half of the opera she seemed under used, but in the 2nd half she had a series of brilliant arias. Gauvin coped superbly with Vivaldi's impossible writing as did Robert Invernizzi as Lucio. The remaining cast members were not quite as impressive but still pretty incredible. Ann Hallenberg, as Servilia, had quite a soft grained voice which came into its own in the long aria Servilia sang to the sleeping Manlio in his prison cell. As the majority of arias in the opera were short, up tempo numbers, it seemed strange for Vivaldi to choose to dwell at such length on an aria not at all germane to the plot.

Marina De Liso, standing in for Sonia Prina, sang Vitellia's arias well enough though she never made me care for the character's suffering. And in the second half Vivaldi seems to lose interest, Vitellia simply comes on periodically and stomps about raging at Manlio, the killer of her lover, but she rages to no effect.

Vitellia's servant, Lindo (Christian Senn) has no significant plot function but gets a series of almost buffo arias which comment wryly on the activities going on around him; rather an old fashioned device by the time Vivaldi wrote the opera. The role was well delivered, in dead pan manner, by Christian Senn.

Carlo Lepore made an impressive tyrant of Tito Manlio, though Vivaldi gave him some remarkably jolly music; Tito Manlio is a character who seems to find great joy in his role in life!

By the end of the opera, some three hours, we had heard some stunning music, and stupendous singing. Many items could be taken out and stand well on their own. The combination of Vivaldi's instrumental vocal writing with his own orchestration was irresistible.

But frankly, I am not sure it quite added up to drama. There were slightly too many jolly up tempo numbers. And the prison scenes, though attractively pathetic, never quite moved me. I kept thinking of what a composer like Handel or Mozart might have made of the situation. By concentrating the 2nd half of the opera on Manlio's imprisonment and the plight of him and his family, Vivaldi would have needed to deliver music of profoundly moving depth and pathos. This he didn't do, seemingly content to charm and please.

Ottavio Dantone, the Accademia Bizantina and his singers coped brilliantly with Vivaldi's taxing music, creating a wonderfully enjoyable evening. Any faults were Vivaldi's, not theirs.

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