Although initially sceptical, I have grown to respect the Barbican’s tradition of concert performances of operas. Without the distraction of staging or directorial imposition, there is the chance to concentrate on the music itself. One fine example of this came with the performance of Vivaldi’s pasticcio opera L’Oracolo in Messenia of 1737 (20 Feb).
Vivaldi’s habit of living and travelling with his former pupil Anna Girò (some 32 years younger than him) seems to have been instrumental in the genesis of this work, after the Archbishop of Ferrara refused him entry to his city on the grounds of his companion. Vivaldi hurriedly arranged a season at Venice’s Teatro S Angelo which opened with L’Oracolo in Messenia. As with so many of Vivaldi’s operas, only the libretto exists, but Fabio Biondi has reconstructed the musical score from clues as to the pieces that Vivaldi collected together, drawing on the Giacomelli work that Vivaldi used as the basis for his pasticcio.
As is often the case in Vivaldi (and indeed in many other composers), the real musical interest often lay in the accompaniment, rather than the vocal line. That said, there were some spectacular showpiece arias, the most extraordinary coming towards the end of Act 2 when Trasimede (the young Russian Julia Lezhneva, in one of the three trouser roles) who had hitherto had a relatively quite time suddenly burst into a stunningly virtuosic aria (Son qual nave, originally written for Farinelli by his brother Ricardo Broschi) that not only produced by far the loudest audience applause but also a young man who leapt onto the stage from the audience to present her with a bunch of flowers – not, I think, a spur of the moment thing, but nonetheless well deserved.
In a very strong vocal cast, the stand-out singers were Magnus Staveland (despite his voice sometimes seeming rather too nice for the villain Polifonte, who has murdered the previous King and all but one of his children and is now after his widow, Merope), Marianne Beate Kielland as the tragic heroine Merope, notably with her impressive mad scene, Vivica Genaux as Epitide, her clear voice having a fine lower register, albeit with rather too much vibrato for my taste, and Franziska Gottwald as the ambassador Licisco, making much of one of the lesser roles. Of the remaining cast, Marina de Liso’s persistent vibrato was a turn-off, and Robert Enticknap, playing another nasty chap, struggled to demonstrate his ability in such a strong cast. It takes a bit of a culture shift to appreciate the 18th century love of pasticcio opera, but this was certainly an effort by Fabio Biondi that was well worth while. He also impressed as a director, leading his excellent group Europa Galante with his violin, and showing great respect for his singers and fellow musicians.