Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Vivaldi: Arsilda, Regina di Ponto
Review of the First Modern Performance
Vivaldi: ARSILDA, Regina di Ponto, RV 700 (Venice, 1716)
Libretto by Domenico Lalli
Known from 2 scores among the Turin manuscripts and surviving wordbooks
Performing edition by Dr. Eric Cross, University of Newcastle
English translation by I.A. Portner
First modern performance: 17 June 1998, Alice Tully Hall, New York, 7:30 pm
ARSILDA (Queen of Ponto, in love with Tamese -- originally sung by Anna Vicenza Dotti), Ellen Rabiner, Contralto
LISEA (Presumed dead, disguised as her shipwrecked twin brother, Tamese; in love with Barzane -- originally sung by Anna Maria Fabri), Julia Anne Wolf, Mezzo-soprano
TAMESE (King of Cilicia, in love with Arsilda, disguised as a gardener -- originally sung by Annibale Pio Fabri), Rockland Osgood, Tenor
BARZANE (King of Lidia, in love with Lisea, then with Arsilda -- originally sung by Carlo Cristini or Carlo Valcata), Robert Crowe, Sopranist
MIRINDA (Royal Princess, confidante of Lisea -- originally sung by Maria Teresa Cotte), Theresa Cincione, Soprano
NICANDRO (Prince of Bitinia, confidant and ally of Tamese -- originally sung by Antonia Pellizzari), Julie Newell, Soprano
CISARDO (Paternal uncle of Tamese and Lisea, Crown Regent -- originally sung by Angelo Zannoni), Stephen Bryant, Bass
The Little Orchestra Society
Metropolitan Singers/Greek Choral Society
Dino Anagnost, Director
The Little Orchestra Society, a well-funded, non-HIP group, included the first modern performance of Arsilda in a series of three all-Vivaldi concerts this season at Alice Tully Hall. To my knowledge, no Vivaldi opera previously had been performed in the New York area. (The Little Orchestra Society subsequently performed Vivaldi's pasticcio Bajazet (Tamerlano) and Vivaldi's Griselda.)
My pre-concert knowledge of Arsilda was based entirely on the information contained in Eric Cross's fine 2-volume reference, The Late Operas of Antonio Vivaldi 1727-1738 (UMI Research Press, 1981). In his appendix of incipits, Dr. Cross wrote out the first few instrumental and vocal phrases of every then-known Vivaldi opera movement, including all variants from the two surviving scores of Arsilda. He also catalogued Vivaldi's borrowings among the surviving operas, showing that Vivaldi reused two arias and the Sinfonia from Arsilda in Teuzzone, two arias in L'incoronazione de Dario (not performed here), and one aria in both Tito Manlio and Il Tigrane. Apparently only the borrowed movements have been recorded.
My lack of experience with the Little Orchestra Society and its fans almost cost me the opportunity to see the opera. Whereas there usually are plenty of tickets available at the opera and oratorio performances of prominent touring baroque orchestras (recently, for example, at programs directed by Rousset, Alessandrini and McGegan), Arsilda sold out in advance, even though the seats were priced at $30 and $40. Moreover, there were several desperate prospective purchasers, a ticket broker without tickets, and no apparent sellers outside the entrance prior to the performance. Resorting to a tactic that had worked before, I discretely held up a $20 bill, which prompted a kind man with an extra ticket to come to my assistance; he refused to accept any compensation for a ticket that had been given to him.
Once inside, I found an ample supply of 7" x 11", attractively-printed, bi-lingual librettos and set about reading as much of the text as possible before the performance. I commend the Little Orchestra Society for supplying a libretto and for providing sufficient light during the concert for the audience to refer to it. At the recent early opera series at BAM featuring performances of Handel's Saul and Hercules directed by Nicholas McGegan and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie directed by William Christie, and at Christopher Hogwood's performances of Giulio Cesare in Boston, no libretti were available, and the halls were too dark for those who brought their own reference materials. Instead, at those performances English texts were projected over the stage, a poor but inexpensive substitute for a printed libretto.
An enormous chorus of perhaps 80 to 90 people filled the rear of the stage at Alice Tully Hall, with a small modern instrument orchestra crammed between the chorus and three platforms, one for the conductor, surrounded by velvet "ropes", and one on either end of the stage for the soloists. Promptly at 7:30, the conductor, Dino Anagnost, appeared, and the performance commenced at 7:32. It was immediately clear from the dancing conductor, the slow pace, the heavy vibrato, and a couple of romantic violin cadenzas inserted into the first movement of the sinfonia that the historic performance movement has had little influence on the Little Orchestra Society. At the conclusion of the sinfonia, Mr. Anagnost turned to the applauding audience and began speaking about opera in 18th Century Venice through a hand-held wireless microphone. Then he introduced Lynn Redgrave as "Narrator."
Under a spotlight beam, Ms. Redgrave walked to an upholstered chair to the right of the conductor's platform as trumpets played the first few bars from Vivaldi's concerto for two trumpets in C. She began by summarizing the Argument, then proceeded to dictate the translations of Cisardo's opening recitative and the following chorus. Throughout the opera, Ms. Redgrave read translations of forthcoming movements, generally up to a couple of paragraphs in advance, but occasionally in the UN manner, mere breaths ahead of the singer or over ritornello. At times, the soloists sang recitative in English, and at the points of greatest drama, they stopped singing and spoke in English. Unfortunately, the latter sections were omitted from the libretto, as was everything not performed, including five complete arias, several B sections, and much recitative.
Arsilda undoubtedly was one of Vivaldi's best early operas. It contains nearly all of the elements of a Venetian opera described in Benedetto Marcello's "Il Teatro alla Moda", published only four years later in 1720. The libretto, by the Neapolitan fugitive Domenico Lalli, who wrote or edited five other libretti used by Vivaldi, features a woman (Lisea) disguised as her male twin (Tamese) who marries the prima donna (Arsilda) before the real Tamese returns and reveals his identity. Arsilda is richly scored, with horns, trumpets, oboes, recorders, and bassoon, in addition to strings and continuo. There are three choral movements, including a hunting chorus, an ensemble and a duet between Nicandro and Mirinda.
The original cast, which was almost identical to the cast of L'incoronazione di Dario, Vivaldi's next opera, included Anna Dotti and Annibale Fabri, known today for their subsequent performances with Handel in London. Accordingly to Dr. Cross's program notes, Anna Maria Fabri, who sang Lisea, may have been married to Annibale Fabri.
Robert Crowe, a soprano falsettist, was the most interesting soloist. He sounded like a boy soprano but with greater volume and control. The music for the two leading female roles was not difficult, at least at the slow tempi chosen by the conductor, and their singing was quite pleasing. The two other men sang reasonably well, but the two female sopranos simply were stylistically unsuited for early opera. The most annoying aspects of the performance were the narrator, constant spotlighting of people on the crowded stage, a tendency of the conductor to stomp while dancing about on his platform, and the harpsichordist's elaborate improvisations in lieu of continuo. The chorus sounded as expected, loud and muddy, in music written for one or two voices per part.
The majority of the audience appeared to enjoy the performance. Indeed, most returned after the single intermission and stayed until the conclusion at about 10:30 pm. The Little Orchestra Society obviously is reaching people who have never heard of Concerto Italiano or Il Giardino Armonico and exposing them to baroque opera. Most importantly, the Little Orchestra Society has subsidized the preparation of a first-class performing edition of Arsilda and a fine English translation. Hopefully one of the European early music labels will take advantage the work already done and record Arsilda in the near future.