Based on a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, and first performed in Florence in 1728, Vivaldi's Atenaide is a remarkably satisfying piece. Many of the arias were originally written for Orlando furioso, the opera completed immediately before this one, but they work wonderfully in this context. There are, however, no ensembles or even duets in this work. As usual the score is full of opportunities for low-voiced women, so loved by Vivaldi.
The singers in this production all acquit themselves ably. Sandrine Piau is Atenaide, and is the only soprano in this production. The mezzo Vivica Genaux is billed in the liner notes as a soprano, but sings in the high mezzo-soprano range as the Emperor Teodosio. Genaux's singing is as thrilling as ever and her phrasing and control are exquisite. The low mezzo-soprano Romina Basso is also perfect as the dastardly Varane, rival for Atenaide. There are one or two moments where she lacks the bottom range for this part, but her rendition of her first-act aria Tanto lieto ho il core in petto, an aria taken from Orlando furioso, is much better than Marie Nicole Lemieux's performance of it in the recording of that opera. The tenors Paul Agnew and Steffano Ferrari also aquit themselves nicely, Agnew as the slightly ineffectual Leontino, father of Atenaide, and Ferrari as the emperor's attendant Probo.
The two stars of this recording are, for me, the French singers Nathalie Stutzmann and Guillemette Laurens. Laurens is the emperor's sister Pulcheria, a manipulative woman determined to scuttle her brother's pursuit of Atenaide. Vivaldi provided this character with arias that signal her unsettled and manipulative nature perfectly, and Laurens performs them wonderfully, fully committing to the role. Her aria, La sul margine del rio, has a lovely if somewhat inane melody, but the ornamentation that Vivaldi supplied (echoed in the strings) transforms it into a hugely difficult piece that Laurens performs with grace and charm. This aria is one of the highlights of the work for me, although all of Pulcheria's arias provide the singer with a challenge.
Nathalie Stutzmann plays the role of Marziano, a Byzantine general who is in love with Pulcheria but cannot hope to be her suitor because of his lower social standing. Marziano has only 4 arias--2 in the first act, and one in the second and the third act--but they are all amazing. The second aria in the first act is a recycled aria from Orlando furioso. In that work it was sung very nicely by the mezzo-soprano Blandine Staskiewicz, but Stutzmann brings a weight to the piece with her considerably lower alto, that makes the octave displacements and fast runs called for by Vivaldi even more spectacular. Her absolute control and ability to deliver the apparently impossible is part of Stutzmann's appeal here, although at times her vibrato is a little wide. Marziano's aria in the third act is devastating in its sadness--he finally admits to himself that his love for Pulcheria is hopeless--and here Stutzmann shines, fully committing to the drama of this piece in her almost sobbing delivery that is perfection.
All in all, this recording is a wonderful addition to the Naive series. I ordered my copy from France because I didn't want to wait for the U.S. release date, and it has been in constant rotation in my stereo in the last month. It is among my favorites in this series, as well as La Verita in Cimento and L'Olimpiade.