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24.6.10

Vivaldi Edition: 'Armida'

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Armida al campo d'Egitto,
Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

(released on May 25, 2010)
Naïve OP 30492 | 2h50
Vivaldi Edition:

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Opera composers have turned again and again to Torquato Tasso's late Renaissance fantasy epic Gerusalemme liberata (translated in English as Jerusalem Delivered): Handel's Rinaldo and Armida abbandonata, Gluck's Armide, Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and Lully's Armide, to name but a few. Add to that list the latest installment from Naïve's Vivaldi Edition, the fruit of a quixotic project to record all of Antonio Vivaldi's work, as found in the manuscripts discovered in the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. Rinaldo Alessandrini and his historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Concerto Italiano return to the project some years after their first full opera contribution, L'Olimpiade. As we have come to expect of Alessandrini's hand at the rudder, the performances are fleet of tempo, taut of ensemble, and just so slightly on edge (for example, in the frenetic fast sections of the overture), drawing a maximum of color from the strings-only ensemble (two horns are occasionally added) -- what Vivaldi had to work with because of the smallness of the pit at Venice's Teatro San Moisè, where Armida al campo d'Egitto was premiered during the 1718 Carnival season.

Tasso's sprawling work intertwines many narrative strands, and Vivaldi chose to set a secondary episode that is somewhat unusual. Librettist Giovanni Palazzi picks up the story of Armida after the two knights have rescued Rinaldo from her enchanted island: as at the memorable end of Lully and Gluck's Armide, when the sorceress destroys her palace in rage and flies off in a winged chariot. In Canto 17, as the Caliph of Cairo, Godfrey's principal enemy, assembles his army in Egpyt -- drawn from throughout the Muslim world -- Armida arrives in her winged chariot, followed by an impressive retinue ("Her chariot like Aurora's glorious wain, / With carbuncles and jacinths glistered round: / Her coachman guided with the golden rein / Four unicorns, by couples yoked and bound"). She offers to surrender herself in marriage to the warrior who can kill Rinaldo, thus causing the Muslim leaders (represented in the opera by Adrasto, Emireno, and Tisaferno) to quarrel in jealousy. The libretto focuses on two love stories, between Osmira (the Caliph's niece, a character added by the librettist) and Adrastus, and between Emireno (an Armenian Christian who renounced the faith and turned to Islam) and his prisoner Erminia (the captured daughter of the King of Antioch, who remains faithful in her love for the Christian knight Tancredi). The usual deceptions, entanglements, and discoveries of opera seria ensue and have to be resolved before the army can march for the final battle, in which they are mostly doomed to die at the hands of the Christians.

If the drama of the plot is mostly lacking, the opera's history had one interesting wrinkle, in that the music for the second act disappeared from the manuscript at some point. What is recorded here is part detective work — three arias that were found in other sources because they were imported into other operas — part reconstructive approximation — taking the text of the libretto (which survives) and making it fit to other arias by Vivaldi — and part outright composition, as in the recitatives, in imitation of Vivaldi's style. The restored second act is the work of Rinaldo Alessandrini and musicologist Frédéric Delaméa, who also contributed the essays in the ample and excellent booklet. (They carried out their work apparently independent and unaware of an American graduate student who was undertaking the same process, under Prof. John Hill at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champlain.) While it is nice to get a sense of the work's dramatic arc, however approximate, it might have been better only to have recorded the three actual arias that survive, while printing the libretto text in the booklet -- especially if it had kept the release down to two discs instead of three.

The cast is generally very good, starting with the chocolate-smooth Armida of contralto Sara Mingardo and the virile mezzo-soprano Romina Basso as the blustery Adrasto (both were created by Vivaldi as trouser roles). A notch below are the Osmira of mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli, the Emireno of mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato (conceived for a low castrato), and the Erminia of soprano Raffaella Milanesi. Martín Oro is an odd choice for Tisaferno (although Vivaldi did create the role for contralto castrato), a countertenor that sounds quite abrasive at the top and a little throaty and swallowed at the bottom, but baritone Furio Zanasi is appropriately patrician as the Caliph.

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