Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vivaldi’s Fanarce, A Revelation

Antonio Vivaldi and his titanic opera Fanarce, like George Frederich Handel and his many stage works are the product of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in the classical music repertory and performance practice over the last forty years. Beginning sometime in the late 1960's and early 70's a strange series or recordings began to appear. The music centered on the neglected works of Mozart (his then rarely heard Opera Seria’s); the unknown operatic world that Haydn cultivated in the little theatre at Eszterhaza and the works of the French and German baroque. The standard bearer and inspiration of this movement was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, his wife Alice plus a group of friends including Gustav Leonhardt , Franz Bruggen and Jaap Schorder. The tuning was odd, to ears modulated to equal temperament, the instruments sounded like something from another and very fascinating planet. Twenty years later many more groups had sprouted up all over Europe and America. By then these troupes began to tour widely after a generation of listeners had now absorbed their treasure trove of recordings. After recording the totality of Bach, and in the final and most extravagant gesture they began to present whole operas. Handel was the first to be completely reevaluated on the basis of works that had existed as only names in history - now refashioned as living things. There followed Rameau and Lully who arrived in New York with William Christie’s Les Arts Florrisants and finally, now Antonio Vivaldi and the much praised and little known Fanarce.

courtesy of Wikipedia

Like Handel before him Vivaldi is known almost exclusively as a composer of endless concerti, a series of deft sacred works and of course the Four Seasons. That he composed over forty known operas (he claims 90!) while also completing his more than 500 instrumental works has been little discussed and few of them heard.

The man known as a great violinist in his time, called ” the Red Priest”, sometime around 1727 began the first version of what is now considered perhaps his supreme masterwork for the stage, Farnace. The plot concerns a character taken up later by Mozart in Mitridate Re di Ponte. Fanarce. Son of King Mitridante rebels and briefly allies himself against his father and brother and sides with Pompey during the third Mithridatic War. Father and son battle over a women, split the kingdom and then reconcile. In Vivaldi the same character fights for his beloved wife (Tamiri)  after suggesting she commit suicide and murder their child rather than be taken prisoner. The plot is complicated by an implacable and bothersome mother-in-law, Berenice, Queen of Cappadocia. Moreover, two nobles vie for Tamiri’s affections, Aquilo and Gilade. Tamari must navigate these treacherous waters to save herself, her son and Kingdom, not lose her virtue and she hopes to even salvage her mad husband. Vivaldi worked and reworked the opera throughout the last years of his life. There are at least three extant versions written between 1727 and 1739. He was so proud of the result that he argued with theatre after theatre over its presentation, brooking no alteration. He claimed in one letter, like Mozart, that it was so well conceived that “Not a note could be cut, even with a knife.” Its incredible power and level of invention are presented in the first bravura aria:

                                              Benche vinto e sconfitto,

                                                Perfide stele, io son Farnace ancora.

                                        Though beaten and defeated,

                              Treacherous stars, I am still Farnace.

courtesy of Wikipedia

That he could write this single aria marks him as a master, what follows lifts him into the lofty company of Gluck, Handel, Rameau, Lully and early Mozart. What we have heard in the playfulness and virtuosity of the Four Seasons, the vocal agility and expressiveness of the Stabat Mater and Gloria and the lyrical tenderness of the Mandolin Concerto is now all combined and harnessed to a great dramatic idea. And although it continues in three acts and over three hours, he was right you can’t cut a note, even with a knife.

Hear the other side of Vivaldi this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and the only baroque opera of the season with Antonio Vivaldi’s Fanarce.  That’s here at noon on KPAC and KTXI.     

by Ron Moore

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