Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa, a tale of nymphs, pirates and disguised lovers on the island of Naxos, presented in concert form by Vivaldi specialists La Serenissima made for a long evening of unrelenting pleasantness. There was little to ruffle the surface of what resembled a festive bout of musical and dramatic skating.
“The Red Priest”, a composer famous for just a handful of works, is not remembered primarily for his operatic output. The fact that it’s a good 25 years since I last saw a Vivaldi opera is less to do with a conscious effort to avoid them than the scarcity of opportunities. Vivaldi supporters may make a case for the restoration of his standing in this field but it would be stretching the facts to suggest that he’s becoming a fixture in opera house repertoires.
If La fida ninfa is anything to go by, dramatic inertia and unbroken jollity are contributory factors. There’s no doubting the endless melodic inventiveness of Vivaldi’s score but the sum effect is of being worn down by a large fluffy pussy-cat. It’s a pleasurable experience but does take an awful long time, with a real danger of immunity to pleasure setting in long before the three and a half hours are over.
It is to the great credit of the hard-working musicians of La Serenissima, under the excellent direction of violinist Adrian Chandler and harpsichordist Steven Devine, and the attractive line-up of singers, that high levels of engagement were possible.
To attempt to unravel the intricacies of the storyline is hardly worth the trouble the usual mix of kidnap, confused love and ultimate reconciliation but it’s the musical treatment that really stretches the attention span. There is conflict but it’s all wrapped up in lovely dancing tunes, with even the boo-hiss baddie, pirate king Oralto, lulling us with his villainy.
With three acts of about an hour each, and just one interval after the first, there was an imbalance in the evening. The short break between Acts 2 and 3 sent some scurrying for the exit (not an exodus, just a thinning out) and two hours might have been enough of this material for most people. Recitatives were thankfully pruned but all arias kept intact.
For the beginning of Act 3, the nymphs felt it appropriate to take time out, sitting on a grassy knoll singing of frolicking lambs, enough to leave any remaining Tarantino fans wishing they’d taken the earlier opportunity to escape.
This is not to take away from the splendid delivery of the artists. The cast of six sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Judith Howarth, mezzos Marie Elliott and the resplendent Sally Bruce-Payne, Mark Tucker (tenor) and Stephen Gadd (bass) flowed seemingly effortlessly through aria after aria and enough recitative to give us a vague idea of what was going on.
There’s only so much unbounded gaiety one can take, though, and even allowing for this not being Vivaldi at his highest level of inspiration, there is little relief to be had in terms of variety of scoring. With just strings for the vast majority of the time, the brief and splendid episodes of brass and timpani at either end of the opera were very welcome.
There’s definitely a place for Vivaldi in the opera schedule, and we should be grateful to the likes of La Serenissima for giving us the chance to experience a wider range of his works, but if you’re going to commit yourself to a whole opera, you need to be prepared for a long journey into the heart of lightness.