I'm a huge fan of Vivaldi (instrumental and vocal music), and I just purchased this set and was overwhelmed by the variety and energy of the music. Most criticisms of Vivaldi center on a supposed sameness to his compostions, however this opera unveils aria after aria filled with interesting and surprising vocal parts and orchestration.
To be fair to potential listeners, this is not a very "natural" style of singing that one might find in Verdi or other Romantic-era composers; this is "Baroque" in a very literal sense of that word: the singing is very technical, elaborate and more concerned with a musical/technical aspect, rather than a dramatic approach that gives primacy to the words in the libretto. However, Vivaldi's highly technical style of writing for the voice never sounds like he's simply writing exercises based on scales and arpeggios, instead (aided by the gifted singers on this recording), the ornamentation, vocal lines and melodies are ear-catching, interesting and "snappy" in a way that one might compare to a well-constructed line in a jazz solo! The orchestration is similarly varied: just listening to the string parts, which are usually only a harmonic cushion or rhythmic accompaniment, provides different contrasts of texture or interactions with the singer(s) throughout the opera. This is Baroque-era string writing of a very high nature, imaginative tecnically, harmoically and orchestrally.
Aside from the compostion of the piece, the interpretation and playing of the singers/orchestra provide further interest and musically delightful results. In my opinion the best of the singers is the contralto who sings Damira, the sultan's mistress (sorry, I'm at work and don't have liner notes with me). She has the hardest music, and sings all of it with intense emotion. She doesn't exactly "nail" every note with precision, but the effect she creates and the feelings she conveys are dead-on. Sara Mingardo is the other contralto on this set, and a personal favorite of mine. As the supposedly legitimate son Melindo, she sings some highly ornate, furious arias, and while she sounds better on other recordings (Opus 111's "L'Olimpiade" for one), her singing is still of a high caliber. The counter-tenor who plays the supposedly illegitimate son Selim is amazing! His voice is like a piercing spotlight with great attack and a truly unique timbre; as far as counter-tenors, it's a vast improvement over the usually effeminate, nasal types recording so often. Both sopranos sing well, especially the flighy, coquettish part of Roxanne. Finally Anthony Johnson as the Sultan Mamud should get applause for even going near the material he has to sing. It is incredibly difficult music, and if he sounds as though he's straining at times, it really doesn't take anything away from the performace. Sometimes it's nice to know that a musician is actually working at what he's doing.
The conducting and orchestra provide the final touches to round off a completely satisfying and invigorating set of music. The sound of the strings, throughout Vivaldi's myraid orchestral voicings, is always impressive. The orchestra can be smooth, warm, icy, piercing, percussive, as the score requires, while always maintaining the fast, fleet passagework that comes up in Vivaldi's instrumental works as well as his operas. (A special treat is the work of the double-bass player: it might seem odd to point out this particular player/instrument, but I thinks he plays with a realy rhythmic flair, as his bass notes pop out and seem to boot the orchestra in just the right places.) Even the recitatives, which can be boring or bland, are engaging, as the singers' beautiful voices couple with a sensitive, lush continuo to provide results which are musically rewarding.
A distinguished work full of surprises, provided by exciting performers.