I wonder why Vivaldi is the new flavour of the month? I admire his operatic output enormously, but with Naïve's impeccably performed and academically sound Complete Vivaldi Edition well underway, it seems to me that it really needs something special to justify recording another straightforward arias disc.
Having said that, all that's lacking from Magdalena Kozena's recital – called Vivaldi, controversially enough – is personality. There's no doubt that she has the technical equipment to sing this often difficult music, but in Vagaus' 'Armatae face et anguibus' from Juditha triumphans (1716), for instance, there's just not enough going on in her performance. The beauty of the sound is striking, and it continues in Rosane's 'Solo quella guancia bella' from La verità in cimento (1720), but so too does the problem of a certain blandness of expression. What's needed is a more specifically matched colour for each text; this would also help the works sound more distinctive.
Kozena scores more in the very slow, contemplative numbers. So Manlio's 'Sonno, se pur sei sonno e non orrore' from Tito Manlio (1719) is a sheer delight: the character lies in his prison cell wishing for sleep before he goes to his death, and Kozena does it with an extraordinary nuance. One or two of her vocal effects in Farnace's 'Gelido in ogni vena' from Farnace (1727)are slightly too self-regarding and overdone, but otherwise the shaping of the phrases in this aria is superb, and the trills really melt into the line. I'd like a little more tonal lustre in Barzane's 'Tornar voglio al primo ardare' from Arsilda, regina di Ponto (1716), which comes across as a little dull here, but things pick up considerably with Ruggiero's 'Sol da te, mio dolce amore' from Orlando Furioso (1727): it's an exquisite piece, exquisitely sung by Kozena and exquisitely played by Michele Favaro on the transverse flute.
One of the finest tracks on the CD is Tullia's 'Misero spirto mio' from Ottone in villa (1727), which oscillates between frenzy and depression. Kozena spins out the lines in long phrases, and the material automatically sets up an inherent contrast. The title character's 'Nel profondo' from Orlando furioso is another highlight, with Kozena always communicating the character's spirit of determination (even if some of it lies a fraction too low for her). Tamiri's 'Forse, o caro' from Farnace takes Kozena back in the contained, controlled direction that truly suits her temperament; the way she introduces little inflections into the words is immediately arresting.
Another excerpt from La verità in cimento brings us Rustena's 'Cara sorte di chi nata', with its cute recorder obbligato from Anna Fusek; here, the orchestra slightly upstages Kozena herself. That's reversed in Griselda's 'Ho il cor già lacero' from Griselda, a fiery aria whose character the mezzo captures perfectly. She's also excellent in 'Non mi lusinga vana speranza' from L'incoronazione di Dario, which lies in an ideal range for her; she delivers it exquisitely.
From Orlando finto pazzo Kozena performs two arias. Ersilla's 'Lo stridor, l'orror d'Averno' is one of the finest arias on the disc, and the wind machine adds glorious piquancy in the introduction. Origille's 'Andero, volero, gridero' is perhaps taken a shade too fast for my liking, though it's vibrantly played, but Licida's 'Mentre dormi Amor fomenti' from L'Olimpiade ends the recital wonderfully, showing just how well Kozena can combine technique and expression when the material is right.
The Venice Baroque Orchestra has no superiors in this repertoire, and here they achieve high standards under Andrea Marcon. On the whole, though, I think Vivaldi's admirers will be better served by the complete sets on the Naïve label, unless Kozena's undeniably beautiful timbre is particularly to your liking.
Opera CD: Magdalena Kozena's Handel CD
Opera Review: Magdalena Kozena sings La Cenerentola at Covent Garden ('07)
CD Review: Magdalena Kozena sings Bach with John Eliot Gardiner
Interview: Janet Price - 'Opera Rara's First Diva'