The case of Vivaldi’s final act

As co-founder and artistic director of Pinchgut Opera, Erin Helyard wears many hats: conductor, theatrical impresario, keyboard virtuoso, musical scholar …

However, for Pinchgut’s latest  production Helyard was obliged to hone his investigative skills and don a metaphorical deerstalker.

Call this The Case of Vivaldi’s Final Act.

Since 1989, when Britain’s then punk-influenced violinist Nigel Kennedy released his version of The Four Seasons – one of the best selling classical recordings of all time – Antonio Lucio Vivaldi has been best known for orchestral works.

Yet during his lifetime (1678-1741) the Venetian-born Vivaldi was feted as a composer of baroque operas.

“In the 18th century, opera composers made more money,” says Helyard. “Vivaldi was a brilliant violinist, but operas were what people wanted to see.”

Prone to exaggeration and self-promotion (“He’d have loved Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” Helyard says), Vivaldi claimed to have written 90 operas, though only 60 have been discovered.

“His favourite was Farnace,” says Helyard, of the opera that premiered in Venice in 1727 at the Teatro San Angelo to huge commercial and critical acclaim.

Skip forward a decade, and the ageing Vivaldi was invited to provide a new work for the opera house at Ferrara (then part of the Italian Papal States).

His pitch? A revised version of Farnace.

“Essentially, this was his last opera,” Helyard explains. “This was the mature Vivaldi – at the cusp of his musical powers, but not his financial success.”

The opera’s plot and libretto, by Antonio Lucchini, remained the same.

However, this final Vivaldi operatic score showed a new urgency.

“He added very expressive directions for the musicians that are entirely absent from his other work,” says Helyard. “Instructions to the violins in a certain aria told them to attack all chords with force. A note to the horns told them to take breaths in different places to make the note continuous.”

By then, Vivaldi was 60, facing poverty and mortality and desperate to leave behind an operatic masterpiece.

He rewrote the first two acts – but was then sacked by Ferrara’s local politicians before revising the final act.

“Vivaldi wasn’t the easiest person to get along with,” says Helyard. “He made many enemies. He was ambitious, mercantile and got up people’s noses.”

The sublime, pastoral cheerfulness of The Four Seasons “doesn’t match the temperament of the composer”.

"He liked to portray himself as a former priest, when he wasn’t really. He spread rumours he was having an affair with one of his leading sopranos though that probably never happened. He saw the marketing of scandal, much like celebrities do nowadays.”

When Vivaldi died three years later – like Mozart, in Vienna and in poverty, and buried in an unmarked grave – his uncompleted version of Farnace had never been performed.

Hence the need for Helyard’s detective work.

Thanks to European Vivaldi specialists, the first two acts had already been recorded, but Helyard took it upon himself to piece together the missing third act.

He went back through scores and recordings, talked to Vivaldi specialists and found a critical aria in the British Library.

“We had a magnificent torso,” Helyard explains. “We had the plot, the libretto, but not the music for Vivaldi’s revised final act. So I’ve done exactly what Vivaldi would have done.”

That meant choosing arias from other Vivaldi operas that married both plot and the voices of contemporary singers.

Vivaldi wasn’t the first or last composer to write an opera called Farnace, based on Pharnaces II, the historical King of Pontus defeated by Pompey during the life of Julius Caesar.

But at the centre of Vivaldi’s version are three strong women.

“That was very unusual in 18th century opera," says Helyard. "It begins with the defeat of Farnace. He orders Tamiri, his wife, to commit suicide after killing their son so they don’t fall into Roman hands. She disobeys.

“Berenice, his extraordinarily strong mother-in-law, detests him and has combined with the Romans to bring about his defeat. His sister, Selinda, is like a guerrilla warrior. Although it’s called Farnace, the opera is driven by three powerful women.”

But what relevance could a 300-year-old opera have today?

Any reference to the Me Too movement is accidental. But the ancient kingdom of Pontus lay in modern Turkey, near the volatile borders of Iraq, Syria and the Ukraine – which explains the contemporary staging, described by Helyard as “a bombed-out space you could see every day on the news”.

A gloomy night at the opera then?

“There’s a couple of deaths,” Helyard admits. “But 17th century opera audiences loved a happy ending.”

Vivaldi’s Farnace, City Recital Hall Sydney, Dec 4-10.

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