Vivaldi (Il) Giustino
No‚ it isn’t a misprint. There really is a difference of two hours and more between these two new recordings of Vivaldi’s Giustino‚ which represent contrasting philosophies‚ you might say‚ about the revival of Baroque opera.
Giustino was composed for Rome in 1724‚ Vivaldi’s fourth opera for the city and about the 20th of his 50 or so operas (he claimed to have written 94‚ but that figure‚ if it means anything‚ must include all the arrangements and pasticcios he ever put on). It is based on a rather pretentiously verbose Venetian libretto‚ dating from 1683 and now twice rewritten to bring it more in line with changing operatic ideals. It still had a large number of arias‚ almost 40‚ which in the original setting – with individual numbers rather shorter – would have produced an evening of normal length. Women were not allowed on stage in Rome at this period‚ so female roles were originally sung by castratos – as indeed were most of the male parts. Two of the smaller roles call for tenors‚ but otherwise there is not much vocal differentiation. Like most Vivaldi operas‚ Giustino includes a number of arias recycled from his earlier operas‚ but I doubt that even the most knowledgeable critic of his style would notice any significant differences.
Tartini famously observed that Vivaldi’s vocal works were unsuccessful. Certainly there is not much evidence that his operas were much admired or much revived. He did not have as natural a feeling for the human voice as some other operatic composers of the time – his vocal writing is often very instrumental in character – and in Giustino his harmonic palette is rather limited (compared‚ say‚ with Handel’s)‚ and ponderously handled. But there is a great deal of striking and vivid invention here‚ and the scoring shows his experience at the Pietà in writing for a wide variety of instruments – his deft handling of the wind produces some attractively colourful or illustrative textures‚ and in one spectacularly beautiful use of strings he has two solo violins play against pizzicato tutti to haunting‚ exotic effect: the aria concerned‚ ‘Sento in seno’‚ seems to foreshadow Gluck’s ‘O del mio dolce ardor’. Another aria has a solo part for the psaltery.
A case can be made for recording such a rare opera with scrupulous thoroughness – what the Bongiovanni version aims at. Or‚ equally‚ for making it a lively entertainment‚ such as the Virgin Veritas version aims at. Bongiovanni’s four quite long CDs offer every note‚ including passages in the autograph score that Vivaldi deleted – the argument being that we don’t know for certain when or why he deleted them (probably we habitually listen to stretches of Figaro and Così that Mozart deleted). And there’s all the lengthy recitative‚ performed with some deliberation. Estevan Velardi‚ who has put a great deal of care into the enterprise‚ favours steady‚ sometimes very slow tempi: an aria may take as much as 30 percent longer than in Alan Curtis’s version. Velardi himself has provided elaborated da capo sections of all the arias‚ sometimes quite florid ones that predicate a tempo rather slower than might otherwise have been chosen. Some of the arias which are anyway slightly dull seem much duller at his tempi.
The Virgin set is clearly the work of a musical director with a solid scholarly background and experience in performing Baroque opera in the theatre. Curtis has substantial cuts‚ removing 13 of the 39 arias‚ and although the cuts are carefully chosen‚ you can’t omit that many without losing something. Several cuts I find surprising‚ for example Giustino’s final aria (a delightful piece if grotesquely inapt to the dramatic situation) goes and so does Leocasta’s‚ thus distorting Act 3. The omission of one character‚ Andronico‚ gives rise to difficulties that require explanation in the libretto‚ as do the heavy cuts in the recitative of which‚ in effect‚ Curtis retains only as much as is needed to make broad sense of the plot.
Velardi has a very competent set of soloists‚ with Silvia Bossi singing pleasantly and clearly in the main female role of Arianna and a good fluent mezzo‚ Manuela Custer‚ in the important role of Anastasio; I was less happy with the fulltoned contralto assigned to Giustino‚ Gianluca Belfiori Doro. The casts share Leonardo de Lisi‚ an assured tenor‚ as Vitaliano. Curtis’s team however is much the more accomplished‚ with Dominique Labelle singing gracefully and subtly as Arianna‚ Marina Comparata a firm and expressive Anastasio (her aria near the end of Act 1 is particularly fine)‚ Geraldine McGreevy a bright and florid Leocasta and Francesca Provvisionato duly vigorous in Giustino’s music. The recitative is delivered at a good speed and with a feeling for timing and meaning: the pacing of the opera as a whole is well judged.
Curtis also has a superior recording; Velardi’s is rather reverberant‚ its boomy bass blurring the textures at times‚ and the continuo harpsichords obscure. Both use‚ it seems‚ 18thcentury bird effects in the song that calls for it. Velardi also incorporates sea sounds‚ which seems to me to go somewhat beyond the normal bounds of authenticity. The booklet and libretto for the Velardi set should have been translated by an English speaker: it has many absurdities (for example‚ ‘superbo’ is rendered as ‘superb’ instead of ‘proud’‚ with comic results). Velardi’s set is one to have for reference‚ but for actual listening pleasure Curtis has more to offer.