VIVALDI: Teuzzone.
Paolo Lopez (sopranista; Teuzzone); Raffaella Milanesi (mezzo; Zidiana); Delphine Galou (contralto; Zelinda); Roberta Mameli (soprano; Cino); Furio Zanasi (baritone; Siveno); Antonio Giovannini (countertenor; Egaro); Makoto Sakurada (tenor; Troncone, Argonte); Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall.
Naïve OP30513 TT: 159:42 (3 CDs).

Beautiful tosh. Whatever Vivaldi wrote, he usually wrote a lot of. He composed over fifty operas, not counting "pastiche" works made up of arias from other scores. Since new manuscripts still come to light in ducal or state archives and libraries, that number may grow. Why they discover things on the order of Vivaldi's operas rather than Bach's St. Mark or St. Luke Passion seems to indicate a mean streak in celestial humor.

As you can tell, I'm not a huge fan of the Vivaldi operas I've heard, despite the beauty of the score. It comes down to my view of opera as primarily a dramatic form expressing conflict among characters. I've read a few articles on the emotional and rhetorical conventions of Baroque drama, and of course it makes little sense to expect Vivaldi to express feeling in the same way as Wagner. However, in Vivaldi's case, I suspect scholarly special pleading. As a composer, he cannot express either character or dramatic conflict. His operas are "pretty" and static. Purcell in Dido and Aeneas, Monteverdi in Orfeo, and Handel in Giulio Cesare, on the other hand, can strike the operatic gold of pathos.

Teuzzone is a bunch of nonsense about Machiavellian intrigue for the throne in ancient China. The exotic setting drew crowds, but it makes little difference to the action, which could take place in ancient Rome or Abyssinia or Denmark without damage. A scheming beautiful widowed empress keeps three men on a string as she lusts for Teuzzone, the rightful heir of her late husband, in love with his beautiful and virtuous Tartar bride. You can see the opportunities the story gives an operatic composer -- essentially a retelling of Phaedra, with politics thrown in -- opportunities which Vivaldi usually throws away. He seems a lyric rather than a dramatic composer and has his big successes in the numbers illustrating birds and storms and storms at sea and ceremony and martial feeling. I'd except two arias. In the first, "Sorò tua regina e sposa," the empress sweet-talks two of her suitors simultaneously, while assuring each that her flattery of the other is mere dissembling. This would suit even better an opera buffa. The Tartar bride has a honey of a number in the last act, "Per lacerarto," in which she tells the audience what she will do to the empress for trying to poach her man. No physical violence, of course, since the heroine is classy. However, this kind of music will form the basis of the "vengeance" aria.

Nevertheless, you can look a long time for genuine drama in Teuzzone. Vivaldi has almost no gift for portraying psychology. The characters have as much life as porcelain figurines. Consequently, the score comes across as little more than a nearly three-hour anthology of Baroque recitatives and arias. Also, the score calls for only two voices in the normal male range -- one baritone and one tenor. We hear counter-tenors, contraltos, mezzos, and various soprano types. Since so many male roles are played by "head" voices, it can seem like a drag show, at least at first. You welcome the lower voices when they come. I can listen to a disc at a time.

But I really do want to listen, due both to Vivaldi's felicity with a tune and to the performers. This is really fine singing and playing. Most of the voices are too small for Verdi, but they can fly over the Vivaldian roulades and phrase absolutely beautifully. Jordi Savall and his Concert des Nations ensemble play with chamber-like sensitivity. I don't know what others mean by "musical," but I mean that the singing lines move ever-forward with sculpted dynamics that give shape to the phrase, that the dances dance, and that the interpretation sounds as if the composer would recognize his own work. Everybody's good, but I especially want to single out the theorbo and Baroque guitar player, Enrique Solinis, who adds tenderness to the quiet moments and spice to the lively ones.

A superior musical production like this deserves a booklet that honors it. I've got no complaints about the content, but someone should have proofread the libretto and its translations into French and English. The languages shift columns, sometimes on the same page. In the middle of one number, the translation in one column becomes the original text and then shifts back. Sometimes, a whole passage of libretto is repeated by mistake. Pure inattention detracts from essentially a first-class job.

S.G.S. (August 2012)