Lemieux, Cangemi, Larmore, Hammarström, Basso; Jaroussky, Senn; Chorus of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Ensemble Matheus, Spinosi. Production: Audi. Naïve OP 30393, 190 mins., subtitled
Among the many operas crafted from Ariosto's dense romantic/historic/fantastical Orlando Furioso, Vivaldi's dramma per musica has attracted interest in recent decades after the centuries of neglect following its not-too-successful 1727 Venetian opening. It stands among the more formally interesting of his operas, which are full of fine music and are now finding their way to light due to resurgent research and performance praxis centered in Italy. For Handelians, watching this opera is like attending Orlando and Alcina played simultaneously: the passion-challenged nominal hero rubs shoulders not only with Angelica (his beloved) and Medoro (her beloved) but with Alcina, Ruggiero and Bradamante (another magic-vexed triangle).
Vivaldi's opera first made modern waves with the release of Erato's 1977 CD set starring Marilyn Horne, Victoria de los Angeles and Lucia Valentini-Terrani, and a DVD from Arthaus Musik documents the first major American staging of the work — at times dull and musically clumsy — at San Francisco Opera in 1989. More in line with recent scholarship, and with a more extensive edition (including some musicological surmises), is Naïve's 2004 CD version, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi leading the same ensemble and four of the same soloists (Lemieux, Larmore, Cangemi, Jaroussky) he leads here.
This staging, shared with Nice and Nancy, was filmed in March 2011 at Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. A darkened stage hosts hatted, sometimes masked characters, as in Venetian Carnival, in opulent black-and-gray eighteenth-century garb. Alcina's magic island — in "Robert Wilson" blue — holds enough chairs for an embassy reception. Pierre Audi's direction favors characters brooding and exchanging meaningful looks when no one is tearing a passion; visual variety is lacking. Lovely as the arias are, Vivaldi generally fails to characterize particular people via musical means the way Handel can, so modern viewers unacquainted with the story and dramatis personae should bone up if they wish to know fully what's transpiring; the booklet essays help a bit.
Spinosi conducts Ensemble Matheus with flair and dispatch — sometimes heedlessly, but it's rarely dull. (This conductor seems to like a certain cat-gut quality from his violins.) The cast shows considerable depth, stylistically and dramatically. Marie-Nicole Lemieux's Orlando, evoking Zach Galifianakis in pirate drag, sounds marvelously rich vocally; her passagework can be impressive but also at times violently emphatic and hell-for-leather. Alcina is a great role written for contralto Anna Girò, Vivaldi's student, muse and perhaps more. Jennifer Larmore makes her into a striking, haughty stage figure, pointing her words, but Larmore's timbre has grown leaner, and the yards of coloratura are sometimes aspirated. Verónica Cangemi, as Angelica, remains a compelling stylist, but her production too has become uneven, with patchy timbre in places and decreased sureness of pitch and breath control. The American and Argentine divas offer fine performances, but one misses their keener form on the CDs. Mezzo Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante) and the bright, technically accomplished Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero) reaffirm their status among Europe's leading Baroque singers; the countertenor's first aria is particularly luminous. Fine mezzo Romina Basso (Medoro) and mellow-toned baritone Christian Senn (Astolfo) also prove admirable.
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