Fabio Biondi and his Baroque outfit Europa Galante have long been champions of Vivaldi’s work, with witty and robust performances of the concertos, and, more recently, reconstructions of his operas. Their recording in 2012 of Vivaldi’s 1737 work L’oracolo in Messenia follows their much praised CD of Bazajet in 2004.
Like Bazajet, L’oracolo is a pasticcio – a pasting together of existing music by a single or multiple composers around a libretto. This was common practice in the busy opera houses of eighteenth century Europe, but, until recently, has been rather looked down upon as a cheap and easy copycat type of opera. L’oracolo in Messenia uses a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, and deals with the struggle to overthrow tyranny in the ancient Greek kingdom of Messenia. The music has been carefully pieced together by Biondi, using arias from other Vivaldi operas and additional music by Riccardo Broschi, Hasse and Giacomelli. The result is an attractive, if dramatically uneven, work of varied vocal highlights.
Directing from his violin throughout the performance, Biondi urged his players onto ever higher standards of playing, characterised by rhythmic vigour and occasional forays (notably by Paola Poncet on harpsichord) into unscripted elaborations. By and large, the singers conformed to the score, but with much vocal brilliance. Tenor Magnus Staveland took the role of Polifonte, the tyrant who has usurped the throne by murdering the previous king, Cresfonte. Elegant and urbane, he sang with confidence and humour, but sounded a touch strained in some of the more demanding passages. As Merope, Cresfonte’s widow, mezzo soprano Marianne Beate Kielland coursed the full range of emotions, from grieving victim to triumphant queen, with understated artistry. Some might quibble with mezzo Vivaca Genaux’ tendency to overdo the vibrato at times, but her steely determination as Merope’s only surviving son, Epitide, was thoroughly convincing.
The secondary roles were equally well handled. Rupert Enticknap’s silky countertenor voice is one to listen out for, and he added a sympathetic quality to the character of assassin and Polifonte sidekick Anassandro. Soprano Julia Lezhneva demonstrated superb singing technique as Trasimede, Messenia’s chief minister who is shyly in love with Merope. Her delivery of ‘Son qual nave’ (by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi) was the vocal highlight, prompting one audience member to climb onto the stage to deliver a bouquet of roses. Mezzo sopranos Marina de Liso and Franziska Gottwald as Epitide’s fiancé Emira and foreign ambassador Licisco had less work to do, but both contributed their dual talents of vocal strength and convincing characterisation. De Liso in particular delivered a pair of fine arias in Act One, expressing at first despair and then joy, before slipping out of the main action for the rest of the opera.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.