> Opera and Oratorio
L'Oracolo in Messenia
Lezhneva, Hallenberg, Genaux, Basso, Gottwald; Sabata, Staveland; Europa Galante, Biondi. Libretto and translation. Virgin 50999 6025472 6 (2)
These days, new recordings of Vivaldi operas seem to appear with the frequency of spring rains. If they are good — as is this new set under the gifted conductor Fabio Biondi — they can be similarly refreshing. L'Oracolo in Messenia, as presented here, has a complicated origin; the libretto, by Apostolo Zeno, dates from 1711 and was utilized by several composers, including the Piacenza-born Geminiano Giacomelli (1692–1740), who set it for a 1734 Venetian carnival opera entitled Merope. Vivaldi produced a version four years later, of which the score does not survive. The "Red Priest" then traveled to the court of Vienna in 1740 and produced what must have been a pasticcio version to judge from the evidence of the libretto, with name changes, dropped arias and added ballets. Vivaldi himself died in the Austrian capital in 1741, and what was billed as his opera L'Oracolo in Messenia was staged there the following year. Biondi's reconstruction draws heavily on recitatives and numbers — eleven of them — from Giacomelli's Merope, incorporating as well an aria apiece by Riccardo Broschi and Hasse, plus numbers from Vivaldi operas including Atenaide, Catone in Utica, Dorilla in Tempe, Farnace, Griselda, Motezuma (sic) and Semiramide.
The story is the usual opera seriafarrago of historically set dynastic struggles, romantic entanglements and the masked identities that complicate them; here, the tyrant Polifonte is killed and the tyrant's confidant Anassandro banished by the rightful heir, Queen Merope's son Epitide (masquerading as "Cleon"). The rest — including Epitide's beloved, Princess Elmira of Etolia, her ambassador Licisco and the loyal Messenian minister Trasimede — enjoy a lieto fine. Given the score's provenance, it would be vain to expect any kind of musical character development — rarely Vivaldi's forte anyway, when placed beside Handel or even Alessandro Scarlatti. But the individual arias and the final chorus are uniformly attractive. The cast contains three of the world's finest Baroque mezzos, with contrasting, expressive individual timbres — the prodigious Ann Hallenberg (Merope), the always incisive Vivica Genaux (Epitide) and the affecting-toned Romina Basso (Elmira). Franziska Gottwald (Licisco) is capable if less individual; Julia Lezhneva's technically astounding Trasimede made me begin to understand the hype this very young singer has occasioned in France. As the villains, Magnus Staveland (Polifronte) sings with fluent style but a rather hard, cold tenor, and countertenor Xavier Sabata dispatches Anassandro's single aria with aplomb. Biondi and his Europa Galante forces flourish in this kind of music; there's much to enjoy in the way of instrumental detail.
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