Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La Senna festeggiante @ Wigmore Hall, London

3 May 2016

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Vivaldi’s La Senna festeggiante (c.1726) is what is termed a serenata. Described as a cross between a cantata and an oratorio, it is a musical form that involves several characters, though no staging and generally little plot. As a form it flourished in seventeenth century Italy, and there is surviving evidence to show that Vivaldi wrote at least eight.

There are specific reasons why the form should have had particular appeal in Venice. In the seventeenth century the Venetian nobility were forbidden by an ancient law to fraternise with outsiders, meaning that ambassadors to the city could end up feeling isolated, thus leading them to create their own sub-culture and amusement. The serenata was one way of doing this, and the French ambassador Jacques-Vincent Languet, who had only arrived in Venice in 1723 following the end of a 14-year long break in diplomatic relations, certainly commissioned Vivaldi to write some. However, the composer may have geared La Senna festeggiante, which has a few elements of pasticcio about it, specifically towards Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (patron of Corelli and Handel) who visited Venice in 1726.

The work sings the praises of the River Seine as it introduces in turn several allegorical characters. The first represents The Golden Age (a soprano) who sings of finding peace in the Seine, the second is Virtue (an alto) who finds in the river the greatest delight and splendour, and the third is The Seine itself (a bass). Once altogether, each proclaims how they would be nothing without the others, before the latter half of the serenata sings the praises of Louis XV, linking him to the sun that shines over The Seine as well as the world.

Stated like this it may all sound a little trite, but, as conductor Robert King explained, much can be gleaned from imagining the original setting for the performance. Although it is not clear if this particular serenata was ever actually performed in Venice in 1726, the act of experiencing the music in the Palais de France (the French ambassador’s residence, now the Grand Hotel ‘Palazzo dei Dogi’) in sight of the lagoon would surely have been magical. The serenata never explicitly says that The Seine is ‘better’ than the waters of Venice, but clearly an audience was being invited to grasp the splendour of the river by relating it to the beauty that lay all around.

If the subject matter thus invited comparison between Italy and France, the music saw a fusion of the two styles with Italianate panache combining with French elegance. The work opens with a Symphony in three sections, and features some relatively sophisticated writing for the time. Certainly, much of the recitative is accompanied by more than simply the harpsichord.

The King’s Consort played magnificently, while the voices of Julia Doyle (The Golden Age), Hilary Summers (Virtue) and David Wilson-Johnson (The Seine) fit the piece very well. If there were occasions when they only just filled the Wigmore Hall, the soloists’ approach was quite deliberate because the work requires the voices to ‘meld’ with the orchestra in a display of shimmering charm. As a result, asserting their voices to any greater extent would have ruined the magical, almost mystical, qualities to be found in them. The fact that the singers had their music in front of them was also authentic as serenatas were never designed to be sung from memory. Indeed, it was the fact that the singers were not expected to act and thus know their parts off by heart that enabled the music, and particularly the recitatives, to be so elaborately written.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.

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