The world premiere of Vivaldi’s last Viennese opera, L’Oracolo in Messenia overo la Merope, RV 726, will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the best operatic concerts ever staged as part of the Opera Rara series.
This is not only because of the wonderful vocal shape of the fine soloists, but also because of everything we’re used to getting from Fabio Biondi: the concert combined the excellent scholarly instinct Biondi is famed for with a truly rock-style bravado.
The audience gathered in Krakow had a great opportunity to hear a piece drawing upon the Greek myth of Polifonte and Merope, the Queen of Messenia: L’Oracolo in Messenia.
The version presented by Biondi is a reconstruction of a piece prepared for Vienna’s audiences, for whom Vivaldi intended to stage this opera during the carnival of 1741. But during the preparations and amidst numerous difficulties in producing the piece, the composer unexpectedly died.
Not even a score from the Venice or Vienna performances survived to this day, though. In reconstructing the piece, Biondi used the only copy of a libretto for the Vienna opera, recently found in the Washington-based Library of Congress. Biondi has done something truly unbelievable: by comparing librettos of both performances and weaving in some arias borrowed from Vivaldi’s contemporaries, he created a cohesive and convincing piece.
He was guided by the spirit of the epoch. Vivaldi’s operas were staged in the capital of the Habsburg Empire and Graz on a pasticcio basis – they often featured arias or musical interludes by other artists. Biondi combined the music of the ‘Red Priest’ with that composed by Geminiano Giacomelli, Riccardo Broschi and Johann Adolf Hasse. The composer also added an appropriate sinfonia serving as an overture, wove in instrumental ballet passages, found arias with incipits that coincided with the text of the discovered libretto, and himself wrote all of the missing recitatives.
The final outcome presented before the Krakow audience was a truly coherent work. The complexity of the plot, increasingly less clear to contemporary audiences, disappears in the incredibly coherent musical narrative. Vivaldi’s arias mix with those from Giacomelli’s Merope, but we could give half our kingdom to the one who will tell what is borrowed in this jigsaw puzzle. The piece that could be wholly produced by Vivaldi is just as good as any other of his pieces presented in Krakow: Bajazet, Ercole sul Termodonte, Ottone in villa, La fida ninfa and Orlando furioso.
Its strong, dramatic power perfectly highlighted the soloists’ voices. The structure of the first act inevitably leads to the queen’s appearing on stage. This star within this plane was Swedish Ann Hallenberg (Meriope), already well known to Krakow audiences. It is an artist whose powerful volume, perfect dramatic talent and unmatched vocal technique unintentionally seduce the audience irrespective of latitude. Hallenberg proved that she is not only a ruler of famous operatic plots (the unforgettable role of Agrippina), but also, or first and foremost, a ruler of her own incredible voice. She presented her awe-inspiring technique in dramatically and musically varied arias: masterfully sung angry Barbaro traditor (Act 1, Scene 2), in which she imposes thrust and fervently articulated accusations onto the energetic tremolo of strings. Hallenberg shone in difficult passages, enchanting the audience not with sound or timbre, but the power of expression of a proud and spurned woman. The audience was particularly impressed with aria parlante No, non meriti pieta (Act 2, Scene 1), in which Merope accuses Cleone of killing her son and swears to take revenge on him. The light ritornello opening an aria from Vivaldi’s Griselda does not herald ensuing true explosion of singer’s emotions: repetitions, exclamations, slowing down the pace and melodic lines cut short, all of those combined with Swede’s talent, perfectly rendered anger, pride and her bravery. However, Meropa is first of all a tragic heroine. Hallenberg succeeded in rendering the tragedy of a betrayed and cheated woman credible with the accompanied recitative of Sei dolor, sei furror and the ensuing aria La’ sul torbido Acheronte (Act 3, Scene 10), in which the singer’s range of emotions varies from fervent accusations to sobbing while she pleads for excuse.
As usual, great emotions were triggered by outstanding Romina Basso, playing Elmira. Basso’s very appearance on stage was enough to trigger a vivid applause from Krakow’s audience, which values highly Basso’s extraordinary voice and personality. Basso is one of those artists who feel their roles very well and she does in Vivaldi’s repertoire surprisingly well, as if music was written with her scale and temper in mind. Mindful of her place in the plot (a supporting role), the singer holds her powerful voice, one with an unmatched scale, as if on leash, presenting its colour, timbre and wonderfully sung text. Moulded in a soft and elegant fashion, the melodic line does not allow her voice to fully unfold, which is exemplified by her part in Se mi vedi nel mio pianto, Cara speranza, yet Basso is nothing short of beautiful in that restraining of her voice. We are still marvelling at how deliberately she operates her expressiveness, diction, and ability to get fitting timbres and moods by steering her voice and body in a right fashion.
Nevertheless, what proved to be the most incredible find was very young Julia Lezhneva, known for Bach’s Passion and performances with Mark Minkowski. She had also shone in Krakow on the occasion of another premiere performance of Red Priest’s opera: Ottone in villa(May 2010) in Giovanni Antonini’s interpretation. Her role with Biondi (of Trasimede) was an instance of a true eruption of talent and actor’s flair. She appeared only in a handful of recitatives and chorus passages and sang in only one aria with Merope (1734) – Riccardo Broschi’s Son qual nave che agi tata (act II, scene 6) – but this was just enough for Lezhneva to enchant the audience with her extraordinary vocal performance. Broschi wrote his aria with his brother Farinelli in mind, with an aim to highlight his heavenly skills. It seems that at that time only few singers besides Farinelli were capable of performing it in an appropriate and persuasive way, and today this aria di tempesta, studded with difficulties, requiring a magnificent technique and scale, flexibility in coloraturas and bravura trills, requires a soloist that will present a phenomenal skill. Lezhneva’s performance is undoubtedly one of the most important events of the last season’s Opera Rara series. The young Russian had to bow before the audience several times, to a thunderous applause of excited audience. What could baffle was the ease she tackled even the most demanding vocal obstacles with her vibrating and piercing voice – extremely effective and somewhat darker than in the actor’s previous performances. The single aria was enough for Lezhneva to join the circle of the Krakow early music stars, the likes of Maria Grazia Schiavo, Sonia Prina, Vivica Genaux and Ann Hallenberg.
Amazing musical performance was also presented by Laura Polverelli, playing Epidytes (Cleone) and Franzisca Gottwald – singing Licisco’s parts. Polverelli is perfectly known on the Baroque scene, though this was her Krakow debut. The Italian mezzo-sopranist has performed with the likes of Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Jean-Claude Malgoire, Christoph Rousset, and Zubin Mehta and recorded for major labels. Full of elegance and melodic richness, aria Dono d’amica sorte (Act 1, Scene 3) finely highlighted the virtues of her velvet, confident soprano, wonderfully ascending vocal garlands, all of them attesting to her high vocal gift. The audience was greatly impressed with Epitide’s aria from the act I Sarebbe un bel diletto, which Biondi borrowed from Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica. Typical for the galant trile style, appoggiaturas and light coloraturas resounded with beauty against a backdrop of Lombardian rhythms. The audience will remember Polverelli’s performance in the aria Sposa, non mi conosci (Act 3, Scene 7), also written for Farinelli in Giacomelli’s Merope. Difficult F minor key, falling motifs, suggestive rests and piercing coloraturas on the word ‘speranza’ (hope) Polverelli rendered with truly Mozart lightness and although she is not such a great theatrical personality as Hallenberg or Basso, the audience in Krakow received her performance with immense respect.
The second most important character of the drama after Merope, Polifonte, was played by Magnus Staveland. The young Scandinavian tenor proved excellent in terms of technique, yet the features of a cruel ruler did not harmonise with warm, clear tenor – which stood in stark contrast with cunning nature and cruelty of the stage prototype. Although the first aria Non ascolto che furrore (Act 2, Scene 5), borrowed from Vivaldi’s Ateneida, well highlighted Polifonte’s angry diction and determination imposed on lively a ternary rhythm, it was only the last aria di tempesta Gia l’idea del giusto scempio (Act 3, Scene 2), from Semiramide by Vivaldi, that allowed Polifonte’s cruelty to fully rise and make this character credible in the leap-studded melody.
Franzisca Gottwald in the role of Licisco (especially in arias So che’e vezzosa or Nell’orrordi notte oscura borrowed from Hass), presented a beautiful and warm soprano with unmatched elegance and technical ability. Hailed by Opernwelt as the best debut of 2006, the artist appeared as a mature vocalist who is well mindful of her role. Somewhat poorer was Xavier Sabata’s performance – the Spanish countertenor in the role of Anassander sang, as a matter of fact, only one significant aria, quite difficult in terms of intonation: Sento gia che invendicata (Act 2, Scene 13). He showed a beautiful velvet voice the audience might be familiar with thanks to William Christieg’s records and stage productions, yet it was somehow strangely odd in this rendition.
Biondi’s reconstruction was a very precious and credible experience. The selection of arias, recitatives and composition of the piece were very convincing. Biondi created a narratively coherent story with clearly highlighted and reconstructed stylistic consistency typical for Vivaldi and led the orchestra with impressive motoricity: surprising entries, phrases cut short, brilliant basso continuo (amazing Paola Poncet playing harpsichord), precise horns and sharp moves of strings – all that makes Europa Galante truly exceptional. Played out by Biondi, the sound of Carl Ferdinand Gagliano’s violin from 1766 led the ensemble from delicate strokes and pinching pizzicato to bravado rock expressiveness in the parts with particular dramatic and emotional load. Opera lovers will consider now L’Oracolo in Messenia not only as a Vienna version reconstructed after almost three centuries but also a Krakow version on its own right: an excellent pasticcio composed of the best elements of Baroque 18th century opera and a show of such vocal personalities as Hallenberg, Basso and Lezhneva. The audience did not want to part with the artists and then, while leaving the opera house, hummed the leitmotifs of arias just as in the the Red Priest’s days.