Thursday 1 October 2020

Toe-tapping arias & moments of drama: Vivaldi's Tamerlano from Ottavio Dantone & Accademia Bizantina

Vivaldi Il Tamerlano; Bruna Taddia, Filippo Mineccia, Delphine Galou, Sophie Rennert, Marina de Liso, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; naive

Vivaldi Il Tamerlano; Bruno Taddia, Filippo Mineccia, Delphine Galou, Sophie Rennert, Marina de Liso, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; naive

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 September 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Vivaldi's late pasticcio uses some gloriously showy arias as a setting for moments of high drama

In a letter to a patron in 1737, composer Antonio Vivaldi made reference to writing 94 operas though only around 50 are now known and even fewer survive in any state of completeness. A new set from naive, as part of the complete Vivaldi edition, rather sheds light on what a 'Vivaldi Opera' might be. Vivaldi presented Il Tamerlano in Verona in 1735, and whilst he wrote the recitatives and the accompagnatos, all the arias came from existing operas, eight by Vivaldi himself (including possibly an earlier setting of Il Tamerlano) as well as operas by Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse, and Riccardo Broschi (the tenor Farinelli's brother). So Il Tamerlano is a pasticcio, a form which was pretty common in the Baroque era where the idea of an opera as a complete work of art had less relevance, and the opera as performed was more closely related to who was performing it, with the libretto often having the greatest prominence.

So Vivaldi Edition volume 65 on naive is Antonio Vivaldi's Il Tamerlano (Il Bajazet) performed by Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina with Bruno Taddia (Bajazet), Filippo Mineccia (Tamerlano), Delphine Galou (Asteria), Sophie Rennert (Irene), Marina de Liso (Andronico) and Arianna Vendittelli (Idaspe), using a new critical edition by Bernado Ticci from 2019.

Il Tamerlano was written in 1735 for the Accademia Filarmonica di Verona for its theatre in Verona. Vivaldi's relationship with the Accademia went back to 1732 when he had written an opera to inaugurate the new theatre, and he had been back for seasons since. For the Carnival season of 1735 he produced two operas, Il Tamerlano and Adelaide, both utilising a lot of pre-existing music (the score to Adelaide is lost but it almost certainly used material from Vivaldi's back catalogue). This is not as lazy as it might sound, in an era without radio and recording, once an opera was performed it was lost and the chance of an audience member in one city having heard a pre-existing opera in another was small. Also, arias were added and changed by performers all the time, opera was understood to be an art in flux, what counted was the performance of the singers on the night. 

The opera uses Agostino Piovene's libretto which was originally set by Francesco Gasparini in Venice in 1711. In fact Gasparini made two settings of the libretto, the second in 1719 and it was this latter setting which influenced Handel's Tamerlano. [see my review of the recording of Gasparini's 1719 Il Bajazet on Glossa] For Gasparini in 1719, Ippolito Zanella vastly expanded the role of Bajazet in the opera, and this was taken over by Handel. By contrast, Vivaldi's 1735 opera relies on the original 1711 libretto, so the role of Bajazet is more discreet, there is no long, long throne room scene (in Handel, the longest single scene of recitative that he composed) or Bajazet's on-stage death scene, though the outlines of the story are still those familiar from Handel's opera.

In Verona, the role of Asteria was sung by Anna Giro, for whom Vivaldi wrote a number of roles and it is perhaps significant that this role and that of Bajazet (originally sung by the tenor, Marc'Antonio Mareschi) use only music by Vivaldi. It was for the other roles that he introduced music by other composers, and much of the imported music came from the repertoire of two of the greatest singers of the day Farinelli (the soprano castrato) and Vittoria Tesi (contralto), so thus the singers in the opera would gain something by association, performing arias made famous by other singers. And don't forget that these famous singers would sing 'their arias' in all sorts of operas, inserting them wherever possible (and sometimes where apparently impossible). 

The opera does not avoid the pit-fall of many Vivaldi operas, the composer's tendency to write toe-tapping instrumental-style numbers which are striking of themselves but do not always develop the character, and the pasticcio nature of this opera only serves to emphasise this tendency. But there is some terrific music here, and a fine cast seem to be having a whale of a time and throw off cascades of roulades with ease. Andronico's aria at the end of Act I might serve as an example of the style of the piece, it's strengths and weaknesses. He is suffering, 'I have not steadfastness enough in my breast/To overcome grief'. We hear a lovely aria by Giacomelli which is all galant elegance, and actually rather memorable, unfortunately it is far too civilised to sound like a character at the end of his tether.

Delphine Galou makes an often touching Asteria, weaving the role's showier passages into an expressive whole, whilst baritone Bruno Taddia thunders wonderfully in the tenor role of Bajazet and Filippo Mineccia has some wonderfully bravura moments as Tamerlano, and Sophie Rennert makes a truly bravura Irene, singing only arias written for Farinelli!

But, for me the most striking feature of the opera is not the arias but the accompanied recitatives. Here, in music crafted specifically for this performance, Vivaldi brings out the innate drama of this story. So both Bajazet and Tamerlano get strikingly dramatic accompanied recitatives in the final scene of Act II, Bajazet's terrific tirade to Asteria when he learns she plans to marry Tamerlano, and Tamerlano's response of 'righteous vengeance'. And this act finishes with a very striking feature, a quartet for Irene, Bajazet, Asteria and Tamerlano. Then at the end of Act III, Asteria has an accompagnato in which she tells Tamerlano that Bajazet is dead (unlike in Handel, the death occurs off-stage).

Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina seem to be having as much fun as the singers, and from the first notes of the opening sinfonia you know that you are in for an enjoyable time. This is engaging music, showy and designed to appeal, yet with some dramatic moments.

I have become somewhat immune to the bizarre, borderline sexist images used in this Vivaldi series, but it would be nice, for once, to have a male image or one which bore a passing resemblance to the drama.

 If I want Tamerlano and Bajazet on disc, then I will always return to Handel and Gasparini, but this new disc sheds a fascinating light on Baroque operatic practice and gives us a glimpse of Vivaldi's dramatic gifts as a composer towards the end of his operatic career (his last known opera is Feraspe, Venice, 1739).

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - Il Tamerlano
(with arias by Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse, Riccardo Broschi)
Bruno Taddia (baritone) - Bajazet
Filippo Mineccia (counter-tenor) - Tamerlano
Delphine Galou (contralto) - Asteria
Sophie Rennert (mezzo-soprano) - Irene
Marina de Liso (soprano) - Andronico
Arianna Vendittelli (soprano) - Idaspe
Accademia Bizantina
Ottavia Dantone
Recorded 7 - 16 February 2020, Sala Oriani, Antico Convento San Francesco, Bagnacavallo, Italy
naive OP7080 3CDs 

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