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GRAMOPHONE (04/2011)
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Reviewer: David Vickers

"Ottone on the March" - Two new recodings of Vivaldis's first opera

Ottone in villa
launched the 35-year-old Vivaldi’s opera career in 1713 at Vicenza’s tiny Teatro delle Garzerie. It is one of the composer’s few operas that already had a serviceable (albeit unimposing) version on disc before Naïve launched its ambitious Vivaldi Edition (Collegium Musicum 90 under Hickox, Chandos, 5/98). Now the opera receives another two contrasting accounts of Italian origin, both of which arguably convey more flair and zest.

Frederic Delamea’s essay for the Naïve set calls Domenico Lalli’s libretto a “spicy, provocative work” and remarks how its ironic intrigues between amoral Roman lovers enjoying their countryside retreat is a clash between the old Venetian-style plots of the l7th century and the modem Arcadian pastoral manner — no doubt apt for an audience potentially containing Venetian aristocrats summering at their Veneto villas on the mainland. As usual with Naïve’s series, the voices are uniformly excellent. Verónica Cangemi ideally brings to life the serial seductress Cleonilla, her cuckolded lover, the emperor Ottone, is sung reliably by Sonia Prina, whereas her extra bit on the side, Caio Silio, is sung gracefully by Julia Lezhneva (“Gelosia, tu già rendi l’aima mia” is a spirited finale to Act 1). Her next amorous target Ostilio (really Caio’s jilted ex-mistress Tullia disguised as a man) is sung by the ever stylish and supple Roberta Invernizzi; Topi Lehtipuu makes telling occasional contributions as the emperor’s bemused confidant Decio. Recorders make a few appearances, particularly in the outstanding scene “L’ombre, I’aure” (Act 2 scene 3), in which the last words of each part of Caio’s beautiful lament are echoed by  the forsaken Tullia as if she is a distant ghost. Admirers of Il Giardino Armonico’s madcap extroversions will be pleased by some thrillingly forceful strings at certain impassioned moments such as some passages during Ottone’s “Frema pur”, in which the deluded emperor veers between disdain for his duty to Rome and amorous infatuation with his mistress.
Not every scene supports Delaméa’s enthusiastic argument that Vivaldi is a dramatist who “portrays the psychological truth of an instant with astounding subtlety” but Giovanni Antonini’s astute direction makes a good case for the opera’s merits — which increase as the plot unfolds. The Sinfonia brims with assertive personality in its exchanges between two sparkling concertino violins, a pair of lively oboes and the ripieni, making it easy to remember that only two years previously Vivaldi had published his L’estro armonico; string-playing in quick arias tends to be imaginative playful and slow arias are always gorgeous.

Continuo accompaniment of recitatives tends to be contrived and fussy and perhaps a few other listeners will share my doubts regarding the artistic need and historical plausibility of a harp in die continuo section. This performance is probably the most convincing evidence of Vivaldi as an interesting opera composer that Naïve’s edition has produced in the past few years and is worth hearing at least for Lezhneva’s compelling portrayal of the beleaguered Caio.

The alternative version by L’Arte dell’Arco and director/violinist Federico Guglielnio is less star-studded but has different virtues. Brilliant Classics’ use of a Canaletto picture of Venice for the front cover is complacent but it is fitting that this performance was recorde in Vicenza at Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico (not quite the original venue but at least the same city). This goes some way towards producing a warmer sound than we hear in Il Giardino Armonico’s performance and it is also significant that L’Arte dell’Arco play with sustained lyricism. Organ continuo makes needless appearances but otherwise Guglielmo’s sensible use of straightforward harpsichord and cello team to accompany recitatives (abridged according to Vivaldi’s 1729 revival) are more convincing than Antonini’s harping on; there is a relaxed atmosphere and the drama is paced nicely. Maria Laura Martorana’s fast vibrato makes Cleonilla’s arias distracting (alas, not always for the character’s amoral seductiveness), but the foolish emperor Ottone is characterised affectionately by Tuva Semniingsen (“Freina pur” is sung and played with unaffected conviction). Romanian countertenor Florin Cezar Ouaru is an ardent Caio Silio: his coloratura singing in the enraged “Gelosia, tu già rendi l’aima mia” takes us to impressive heights although some may not like the view from up there; the love aria “Leggi almeno, tiranna infedele” shows a sweeter melodic virtue to his singing. The jilted Tullia’s “Con l’amor di donna amante” is sung enchantingly by Mantuan soprano Marina Bartoli (no relation — and possessor of an infinitely more suitable voice and technique for Baroque music).

Only devout Vivaldians will want both new versions. Antonini presents the glamorous and safer bet but I preferred some aspects of Guglielmo’s interpretation. Few would expect operas by Paisiello, Cimarosa, Martin y Soler or Salieri to receive as many recordings as contemporary operas by Mozart but it is peculiar that in recent years there have been almost as many new recordings of Vivaldi operas as of those of Handel; although not cause for complaint that Ottone in villa now has three accomplished and dissimilar versions on disc, it is an indication of strange and fascinating times.

* Vivaldi: Ottone in villa, L'Arte dell'Arco, dir. Frederic Gugliemo, Brilliant Classics BRIL94105

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