Arsilda was Vivaldi's third opera, written to a libretto by the prolific writer Domenico Lalli. Lalli didn't want his name associated with the libretto as he believed Vivaldi had destroyed it by his music. On the other hand it is equally clear that when the opera was first performed it wasn't the kind of work Vivaldi had in mind. The inquisitors which the Council of Ten had appointed to exert political and religious censorship over opera libretti had refused to give their permission for a performance of the original version. Vivaldi had accordingly to change it considerably. In this recording an attempt has been made to reconstruct the opera as it was originally conceived by Vivaldi. Antonio Maria Sardelli, in his programme notes, states that the original conception is considerably bolder and more interesting than the later version which was performed in the Sant'Angelo theatre in 1716.
The tribulations around the first performance didn't prevent the opera from becoming popular. It seems to have been performed in Germany and in Prague. Several manuscripts have been found all over Europe with arias from this opera, sometimes in arrangements, which were used in performances of other operas. And it looks as if Vivaldi was pleased with his work as well, as he often ‘recycled’ material from it in other vocal and instrumental works.
The story is as complicated as most libretti from the 17th and 18th century, with a lot of disguise and gender-bending. Arsilda is the queen of Pontus and is engaged to Tamese, prince of Cilicia. He is thought to be dead, and as the crown of Cilicia is reserved to a male, his place is taken by his twin sister Lisea, pretending to be her brother. That causes problems when Arsilda wants to marry. Another complication is that Lisea has been promised to Barzane, king of Lydia, who is in love with Arsilda. He is looking for revenge as Tamese had taken away Arsilda, and invades the country. But he is captured thanks to Tamese, disguised as a gardener. In the second act Lisea, disguised as Tamese, confronts Barzane with his unfaithfulness towards her. He sees the error of his ways and decides to beg Lisea for forgiveness. In the meantime Tamese reveals to Arsilda that her 'fiancé' is his sister Lisea. Cisardo, the twin's uncle, has overheard his confession and decides to take action. In the third act the real identity of all characters involved is revealed. The opera ends with Tamese and Arsilda becoming king and queen of Cilicia, and Barzane returning as king to Lydia, with Lisea as his queen. The storyline of baroque operas are often rather ridiculous - opera arias can be very moving, especially as Handel's operas demonstrate. That said, in Vivaldi's operas the level of emotional involvement is less than in Handel, and Vivaldi's arias generally impress more in their instrumental accompaniment than the vocal parts. Such ‘vocal concerto’ style arias abound in this opera, as in the Act Ii arioso of Arsilda “Sù svegliatevi augelletti”, which is a concerto for voice and solo violin.
Vivaldi was a composer with theatrical instinct, and his operas and instrumental music are dramatic in nature. There are also similarities in the way instruments are used to create an atmosphere. A good example is the closing aria of the first act, 'Io son quel Gelsomino' (I am like that jasmine flower) which is very reminiscent of, for instance, the 'Four Seasons'. Soprano Elena Cecchi Fedi gives a beautiful rendition with a limpid and wine dark soprano. In fact, there are quite a number of arias in which images from nature are used, like the butterfly, the nightingale and the turtledove, as in the Act II aria “Un certo non sò che”. Here Vivaldi is at his most inspired.
There is plenty to enjoy here, and lovers of Vivaldi's music will find much which sounds familiar. Antonio Maria Sardelli has brought together a fine cast, which shows a good understanding of Vivaldi's music and the style of the baroque era. As far as the singers are concerned, almost all have pleasant voices, except the tenor Joseph Cornwell whose slight tremolo becomes pretty annoying. He certainly impresses in the way he masters his virtuosic arias, which contain a lot of coloraturas. But as there are clear accents in the instrumental parts, there are none in his interpretation of the vocal line and this makes his arias little more than a flood of notes.
However, the cast is less involved emotionally in the recitatives. Some believe that the recitatives in baroque operas are very boring, and this recording adds fresh fuel to that prejudice. The tempi are generally too slow, and the interaction between the protagonists is often very static. One hears very little anger, fear, agitation in the recitatives.
The best performance in this recording comes from mezzo-soprano Lucia Sciannimanico, who gives a very sensitive interpretation of the role of Lisea with a rich and expressive timbre. Sergio Foresti is totally convincing as Cisardo. The roles of Mirinda and Nicandro are also well realised. In the title role, Simonetta Cavalli's performances are a little uneven, whereas soprano Nicky Kennedy is disappointingly bland as Barzane.
The orchestra under Sardelli is brilliant, always playing at a very high level, bold and vivid. But sometimes misses the dramatic point, as for instance, the strong accents in Arsilda's aria 'Io sento in questo seno' (act I) seem at odds: "I hear my distressed heart, weep and sigh in my breast that is only filled with sorrows". There is a lack of real sensitivity to the lyrics here from the orchestra.
One can only thank Sardelli for recording this reconstruction of the original version of this opera. The singing and playing is generally good, but that can't make up for the lack of drama and emotion.