Over the last few years the independent Na´ve label has recorded a number of Vivaldi's operas as part of a projected complete edition of more than four hundred and fifty works on over a hundred CDs. The edition began in 2000 and will take at least ten years to complete.
What surprises me is that despite the scholarly integrity of the project (it is based on a critical edition of the autograph manuscripts housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin), the high quality of soloists and the unexpected jewels of some of the operas in particular, it hasn't received more attention. Baroque opera may not be to everybody's taste but considering the widespread interest in Handel's operas, which are not necessarily superior to the best of Vivaldi's, there ought to be more acclaim for this magnificent series.
This new instalment gives us the opportunity to enjoy the composer's 'dramma per musica' Atenaide, which had not been heard in 278 years until the conductor of this recording, Federico Maria Sardelli, led a performance in 2006. As Sardelli explains in his informative booklet essay, Atenaide is the only one of Vivaldi's operas which can still be performed in the theatre for which it was written (La Pergola in Florence), and this lively studio account has all the atmosphere of a staged performance.
The opera was given its premiere on 29 December 1728. It was set to a libretto by Zeno which was already nearly twenty years old and had already been set to music for a Viennese performance in 1714 when it came into Vivaldi's hands. The composer was apparently no fan of Zeno's work but his contract did not allow him to choose his own libretto. The complicated story deals with the historical figure of Athenais, the empress of the East converted to Christianity under the name of Eudocia, and her proposed marriage to the Roman Emperor Teodosio. As with many operas of the period, the plot is not particularly gripping. But the music really is sensational in many respects. The da capo aria takes precedence and some of the numbers derive from Orlando furioso and Farnace. Of the new arias, many of the most interesting are given to the title character, for instance the F minor lament 'In bosco romito'. The lack of duets and ensembles may be off-putting to those who prefer some of Handel's more ostentatiously entertaining mature operas, but the depiction of Atenaide in various psychological and emotional whirlwinds is spellbinding in a more understated sense.
The cast for this recording is mostly very good and is headed by soprano Sandrine Piau in the title part. She is clearly the star of the show, singing with vigour, minimal vibrato and in long, elegant phrases. The third act gives her an especially big showcase and her creamy tone is well suited to this period of music.
As Teodosio, Vivica Genaux also sings with panache, not least in the stirring vengeance aria 'M'accende amor l'ire guerriere in petto' where the coloratura is fiendishly difficult to carry off. The part of Pulcheria is quite complicated to portray psychologically; for instance, 'Te solo penso, ed amo' is a monologue of conflicted love. Guillemette Laurens more than satisfies this aspect of the role, though I find her voice lacking in tone. Of the two tenor roles, the plush-voiced Paul Agnew makes much more of Leontino's music than Stefano Ferrari does of Probo's. Ferrari's voice sounds rather dry compared to the rest of the cast. Nathalie Stutzmann is one of the most dramatically committed singers on the recording, but just occasionally there are intonation problems which distract next to the well-tuned Piau and Genaux. Similarly, Romina Basso sings the part of Varane with bags of character, but certain notes sound a little sour and the use of vibrato is excessive in places. The basic tone of her voice, however, is lovely and rich, surely something that Vivaldi would have delighted in.
Perhaps the glory of the set is the playing of Modo Antiquo under conductor Sardelli. The continuo group includes a bassoon and Sardelli uses oboes as well as recorders in order to spice up the accompaniment. Despite the large amount of secco recitative the conductor makes the drama move rapidly, and three CDs' worth of music seems to fly by in no time at all.
An excellent recording acoustic and clear, informative booklet help to make this a high recommendation.