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Format: Audio CD
L'Oracolo in Messenia, overo La Merope - opera in musica, RV 726
Pastiche in three acts, music by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - 11 numbers, and Germiniano Giacomelli (1692-1740) - 13 numbers, with one number by Riccardo Broschi (ca. 1698-1756, Farinelli's brother) and one by Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783).
Libretto by Apostolo Zeno - sung in Italian; adapted from the libretto by the same author for Giacomelli's La Merope, in its turn derived from Euripide's tragedy Cresphontes.
Premiered at the Teatro S. Angelo, Venice, 28 December 1737
Vienna Version first performed at the Kärntnertortheater, Vienna, Carnival 1742
Reconstruction of the Vienna version by Fabio Biondi
Orchestra: period ensemble Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi (who also plays the violin), and made of three violins, viola, cello, double bass, oboe, bassoon, horn, theorbo, and harpsichord
Polifonte, king of Messenia - Magnus Staveland, tenor
Merope, queen of Messenia, widow of Cresfonte - Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Epitide, son of Merope, disguised under the name of Cleon - Vivica Genaux, mezzo soprano
Elmira, princess of Etolia - Romina Basso, mezzo-soprano
Trasimede, chief minister of Messenia - Julia Lezhneva, soprano
Licisco, ambassador from Etolia - Franziska Gottwald, mezzo-soprano
Anassandro, confidant of Polifonte - Xavier Sabata, countertenor
Recorded live at the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, on 13-15 January 2012, as part of the Resonanzen festifal, by ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation), Radio Österreich I
Released on 2 CDs in 2012 by EMI Records / Virgin Classics
Libretto included, in Italian, with side-by-side translations into English, French, and German
The insert includes color pictures of the conductor, the singers, and the ensemble; a 1-page essay about the opera authored by Fabio Biondi and Frédéric Delamea; a much longer 8-page essay about the opera, the composer, and the circumstances of composition, authored by Frédéric Delamea; a 2-page synopsis authored by Berhnhard Drobig; list of tracks with names of the arias, characters, and duration; sources for all numbers including who composed them, and from what opera they were lifted. All of the above come in English, French, and German, and everything is nicely packaged in a rigid box.
Running times: CD 1 79:49 (Act I, Act II scenes 1-7), CD 2 76:52 (Act II scenes 8-14, Act III)
Sound quality: impeccable, the highest possible, with perfect balance, clarity, and volume.
This recording is an admirable work. The score for Vivaldi's opera L'Oracolo in Messenia is lost. The libretto, however, survived, and Fabio Biondi reconstructed the opera as a pastiche, transplanting onto the words music from Giacomelli's opera La Merope, which is clever because there are hints that Vivaldi did just that, since his L'Oracolo in Messenia was a readaptation of Giacomelli's La Merope and may have had music directly borrowed from it - it was actually a pastiche as well. This practice of borrowing arias from other composers wasn't uncommon at the time, and there are numerous other examples of such in Vivaldi's works. Fabio Biondi also used music from Vivaldi's own operas, including Griselda, Catone in Utica, Motezuma, Dorilla in Tempe, Farnace (Ferrara version), and Semiramide. Two outstanding additional numbers come from Broschi's Artaserse, and Hasse's Siroe, re di Persia.
Vivaldi wrote a first version of this opera for Venice (in very short notice, to savage his season after his Siroe, re di Persia fell apart in Ferrara thanks to the archbishop refusing to allow the composer into the city due to suspecting him of sinful relations with the singer Anna Girò), and it was greatly successful. The score for it is lost. It was received with "tumultuous applause" and "firm approval" according to the papers. In need for something guaranteed to be successful thanks to the financial difficulties brought about by the Ferrara fiasco, Vivaldi relied on Giacomelli's La Merope, given that it was a smashing triumph (in part, thanks to the casting of the two best castrati in town, Farinelli and Caffarelli).
When Vivaldi decided to quit Venice (the circumstances are well explained in the insert) and move to Vienna, he thought he should take this particular opera with him, due to the fact that Zeno, the librettist, was a former poet laureate to the imperial court in Vienna. Besides, this was arguably Zeno's best libretto, described by the poet as "the least bad of my dramas." Vivaldi wanted to make an even better impression, and added three ballets and seven new arias, dropping three of the old ones (Fabio Biondi does conserve one of them - "S'in campo armato" - which only existed in the Venetian version). He also changed the name of one character - the princess Argia became Elmira.
Vivaldi evidently hoped for the same success achieved in Venice for his Viennese version, since he wanted to impress the emperor. But fate decided otherwise: on 20 October 1740, before Vivaldi's premiere, Charles VI suddenly died, allegedly after eating poisonous mushrooms. All theaters in Vienna were closed down for one year, in sign of grieving for the emperor. Vivaldi made unsuccessful attempts to obtain a commission from the emperor's successor (Prince Anton Ulrich von Saxe-Meiningen). Without a sponsor, the composer plunged into financial turmoil, sold his scores at rock-bottom prices, and died himself shortly thereafter, receiving a pauper's funeral.
Still, after the theaters reopened, Vivaldi's L'Oracolo in Messenia, Viennese version, did see the light of day. Apparently Prince Anton was remorseful for having brushed off Vivaldi, and Anna Girò, Vivaldi's loyal friend, also insisted that the opera should be staged (she sang the role of Merope). This posthumous production allowed the Viennese public to hear a moving postscript to the great composer's operatic career. And now, Fabio Biondi brings us what is likely to be a rather close approximation, because while the score for the second version is also lost, in the surviving libretto Vivaldi did give indications of what music he was planning to borrow for his pastiche.
The result of Fabio Biondi's work is extraordinary. In spite of the eclectic sources, Maestro Biondi's inspired mastery of the music from this period ensured excellent unity of style and great pace. He recovered most of the recitatives from La Merope, and everything flows smoothly. And of course, by lifting great music from several different operas, Fabio Biondi was able to put together a great collection of fabulous arias. Particularly notewhorty, for example, are the very energetic "Nel mar cosi funesta" from Vivaldi's Farnace, the agile coloratura of "Son qual nave" from Broschi's Artaserse, the sonorous "Spera quest'alma amante" from Giacomelli's La Merope, and the very rhythmic "Nell'orror di notte oscura" from Hasse's Siroe, re di Persia - but there are many others just as excellent, particularly in the second half of the work when things pick up speed and excitement. The overture is by Vivaldi and comes from Griselda, but unlike the original, is transposed to F major and uses horns.
Add to the great music a very interesting libretto that actually has a compelling story with some intriguing twists, and you have a winner, as far as the opera is concerned.
And then, to complete the pleasure, get a homogeneous cast of absolutely virtuosic singers accompanied by no less accomplished musicians, and package everything with a very complete insert that contains plenty of information about the work. The ice on the cake, deliver it with impeccable sound!
What do you get? A highly recommended CD, of course. This is absolutely indispensable for lovers of music from this period.
It is hard to say individual praise for each of the seven singers, because they are all incredibly - and equally - good. The expression "no weak links" hasn't been as appropriately used in a long time. We get a Vivica Genaux full of energy and incredibly agile. She steals the show several times over, and shines in many of her numbers. Ann Hallenberg is creamy and suave, but then explodes in fury when needed. Magnus Staveland with the only tenor role in a sea of mezzos, a soprano, and a contralto, holds very well the male-sounding part of the enterprise. Xavier Sabata, with a dark voice for a contralto, is a welcome surprise. Julia Lezhneva has a peculiar, delicate, and pleasant timbre, and together with Vivica Genaux, is arguably one of the two most dazzling singers in this recording - oh well, maybe I should say the three best, since Ann Hallenberg is also great! Romina Basso is able to convey good color (she is a bit breathy, though, but not to a bothersome point). Franziska Gottwald is very powerful and precise, especially in the fiendshly difficult "Nell'orror di notte oscura."
The period ensemble Europa Galante is simply sublime, as is Biondi's dynamic direction.
Like I said, early opera lover: you can't not have this CD in your collection.