Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

Vivaldi: Il Farnace

DVD Button Nesi, Prina, Mameli, Galou, Castellano; Staveland, D’Aguanno. Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Sardelli. Production: Gandini. Dynamic 37670 (2), 151 mins.

Recordings Farnace Cover 1215

HEAVEN IS A BAROQUE OPERA with five superb female voices and none of those posturing, inexpressive countertenors. For dramatic expression and unfussy musical authority in this repertoire, it doesn’t get any better than Greek mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi and Italian contralto Sonia Prina. When they’re on stage together in Vivaldi’s Farnace—Nesi in the title role, a defeated ruler, and Prina as his wife, Tamiri—the intensity is palpable. In the opening scene, Farnace commands his wife to kill their son and then herself, rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the conquering Romans. No one will wait impatiently for the arias in this dramatic performance (directed by Marco Gandini), because the recitatives are just as riveting.

Gandini has found the right combination of visual clarity and stillness, focusing on the singers’ communicative abilities with an understanding and trust that’s rare in contemporary Baroque stagings. Similarly, conductor Federico Maria Sardelli and his cast know how to pace and control the music, so we don’t need pink flamingos or dancing sidekicks to attempt to hold the audience’s interest.

Italo Grassi’s industrial set, beautifully lit by Valerio Tiberi and enhanced by Virginio Levrio’s video design, wraps a playing area around the orchestra pit, affording plenty of contact with the players of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Costumes by Grassi and Simona Morresi are simple yet evocative, with leather, shiny breastplates and oversized jewelry indicating rank and occupation. Scaffolding, metal structures and video projections suggest the confined spaces of this political drama while affording openness for the singers to address the audience directly, even when music stands are discreetly used. 

Farnace’s many revivals and reworkings leave different versions to choose from, and here the opera concludes with the title character’s “Gelido in ogno veno,” an often-excerpted aria which Nesi sings with unparalleled commitment and authority. Prina’s fiery eyes and fearless acting make the most her arias, even “Or di Roma,” whose octave doublings and overuse of sequences mark it as less than first rate Vivaldi.

As the suitor Gilade, soprano Roberta Mameli shows excellent technical control, with pinpoint high notes, inventive ornamentation and impeccable tuning in the birdlike trills and repeated notes of “Quel’usignuolo.” Loriana Castellano plays Farnace’s sister Selinda with gleaming tone, and she makes the most of the “modern” galant-style aria “Lascia di sospirar.” As the evil mother-in-law, Berenice, Delphine Galou delivers unconvincing histrionics, and her voice can sound hooty and occasionally pressed in tone. Magnus Staveland is a nimble Aquilio, especially in his “cacciatore” (hunting) aria with horns, and Emanuele D’Aguanno is suitably pompous in the role of Pompeo. —Judith Malafronte 

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