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 Recording of the Week  Vivaldi Operas - Ottone in Villa and Ercole

Though Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi is probably best known these days by his Violin Concertos, he was also a very significant opera composer. In a letter written by Vivaldi to his patron Marchese Bentivoglio he at one point claimed to have written 94 operas and, although this may well have been an exaggeration, there is certainly evidence for over 50. Of these only 16 have survived complete, but there are many others with enough substantial fragments still existing for someone with an intimate knowledge of Vivaldi’s style to reconstruct a very satisfactory performing edition. However, to date recordings of the operas remain something of a rarity, so it is something to celebrate that I’ve got two new recordings to tell you about this week.

Giovanni Antonini
Giovanni Antonini

The first is the latest release in Naïve’s ongoing Vivaldi Edition and is of what is thought to be the composer’s first opera - Ottone in Villa. Composed and premiered in 1713 Vivaldi was by then 35 years old and already well known as Italy’s foremost violinist and composer of concertos. This is one of the sixteen surviving complete operas and for a composer’s first opera it is pretty impressive. True, musically it isn’t that interesting – proceeding with alternating secco recitatives and da capo arias, but that was the prevailing style of the time and some of the arias are really exciting. There is also no shortage of beautiful melodies, which the singers in this new recording ornament very elegantly indeed. In fact all the singers are good but I found the flawless technique and expressive range of Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva particularly outstanding. The recording also features the leading Baroque ensemble Il Giardino Armonico who are stylistically spot on and the performance is well paced by their music director Giovanni Antonini. It isn’t the first recording of this opera but must rank amongst the very best.

Fabio Biondi
Fabio Biondi

The other new Vivaldi Opera recording is really very exciting indeed – Ercole sul Termodonte – reconstructed from about 30 surviving arias and duets by conductor and musicologist Fabio Biondi. It dates from 1723 and a good libretto allows plots and sub-plots to develop which Vivaldi uses brilliantly to achieve great variety in the music. This was quite new in opera at the time and this variety in styles ranges from comic to amorous and heroic to desperate, and makes the opera much more exciting to listen to. But to pull this off successfully you do of course need an outstanding cast of singers capable of expressing these emotions, and this recording must have pretty close to the dream team – led by Rolando Villazón and Joyce DiDonato, but also featuring Diana Damrau, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Patrizia Ciofi, Romina Basso and Topi Lehtipuu.

Now, as regular readers will know I’m always honest and say exactly what I think. Well, despite listening to this a lot of times I’m still not one hundred percent convinced with the choice of Rolando Villazón for the lead role. He had an operation on his vocal cords last year and while clearly not quite back to his best yet, it is his stylistic approach being slightly at odds with the rest of the cast and a few moments of imperfect intonation that bother me more. That said though it is hard not to be bowled over by the way he throws himself into this role so completely and of course his natural bravura is entirely appropriate for the role of Ercole that he plays. There is a short video on the website so you can make your own mind up, and you’ll also hear in the video that everyone else is absolutely amazing! I’ve mentioned the term dream-team already, but I can’t emphasise enough quite how outstanding this cast is.

They are superbly supported by Europa Galante under Biondi, who features as conductor and first violin (occasionally also grabbing the viola d’amore). His careful choice of tempi combined with his faultless balance and stylistic playing and direction make this a hugely satisfying performance with so much to enjoy within.

Vivaldi: Ottone in Villa

Sonia Prina (Ottone), Julia Lezhneva (Caio Silio), Veronica Cangemi (Cleonilla), Roberta Invernizzi (Tullia) & Topi Lehtipuu (Decio), Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (director)

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Vivaldi: Ercole sul Termodonte

Rolando Villazón (Ercole), Patrizia Ciofi (Orizia), Diana Damrau (Martesia), Joyce DiDonato (Ippolita), Vivica Genaux (Antiope), Topi Lehtipuu (Telemone), Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste), Romina Basso (Teseo), Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC