Today, opera is the sole part of Vivaldi's output that suffers from neglect. This is somewhat surprising, given the determination to rescue every facet of his music from obscurity. Prejudice against his operatic work has a long history, however. Tartini claimed that Vivaldi, despite wanting the same success as a vocal composer that he enjoyed as an instrumental one, 'always got himself hissed' for his efforts in this sphere. But we should be on our guard. After all, Vivaldi's sacred vocal works represent some of his most inspired compositions. Might not the same be true of at least some of the operas?
In the case of Tito Manlio this would certainly seem to be the case. It is an opera in which the writing is sustained at a consistently high level with a constant succession of numbers showing invention, contrast and interest. The work it resembles most closely, perhaps, is not another opera but the highly distinguished oratorio Juditha Triumphans, written only three years earlier. It shares the same lavish range of instrumentation, thematic material (the closing numbers of both works have more than a little in common) and consistency of quality. Tito Manlio was written for the Mantuan carnival of 1719 - during the early period of Vivaldi's opera writing, in other words. These early operas have been described as 'orchestra-dominated' by Michael Talbot. Melodies are profuse and attractive, and solists and ensemble are at least as prominent as vocalists. Those who know the orchestral works well will recognise elements from them, sometimes whole movements (eg the Concerto funebre). Such self-borrowing is hardly surprising - Vivaldi reputedly had only five days to write the complete score!
The Accademia Bizantina make the most of all the opportunities given to them with several accomplished solo passages. Their playing is committed and inspired enough to bring out Vivaldi's trademark polychromy. Two other things are worth mentioning. First, the imagination found in other Naïve releases also features here. In particular, the recitatives are considerably enlivened by the contributions of plucked instruments and bass strings. (Harpsichord-only recitatives can be very wearisome over nearly three hours.) And, as already noted, there is plenty of variety to be found in the instrumentation of the arias themselves, with cello, viola d'amore, flute and piccolo all playing important and memorable roles. Second, although the Naïve label isn't an especially budget one, Amazon's digital download is heavily discounted and represents fine value. All in all, those wanting to sample Vivaldian opera could do very much worse than to start right here.