Antonio Vivaldi - Farnace
Opéra National du Rhin, 2012
George Petrou, Lucinda Childs, Max Emanuel Cencic, Mary Ellen Nesi, Ruxandra Donose, Carol Garcia, Vivica Genaux, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Juan Sancho
Strasbourg, France, 18 May 2012
Originally created in 1729 for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice, Farnace was subjected to revisions by Vivaldi in 1738 for a new production in Ferrare, the composer adapting the airs and recitative for the tessitura for the Ferrare singers, but also seeking to rework the opera in the Neapolitan ‘galant style’. The performances were however cancelled - for reasons unknown - and Vivaldi left the new version of the work unfinished after revising only the first two of the opera’s three acts. Fascinated by Vivaldi’s work on the Ferrare version, one of the last pieces of work written by the composer, and considering it worth reviving and preserving, George Petrou, along with Frédéric Delaméa and Diego Fasolis, undertook the task of continuing the revisions made by Vivaldi through to the third act, and the revised Farnace was given its first ever complete live performance (it was recorded in 2010) by the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg on 18th May 2012, premiered some 274 years after it was written by Vivaldi.
The resulting work then is perhaps not musically 100% pure Vivaldi, but as a best guess interpretation of the composer’s intentions, the work has certainly been carried out with scholarly authority and it’s probably no less “authentic” than just about any interpretation of the music, style, tempo and instrumentation for most Baroque opera seria works of this period. If the first two acts were to ever be reconstructed and performed, it was however essential to either rewrite the third act or simply play the opera in its incomplete state. Simply grafting the original third act from the Venice Farnace onto the revised Ferrare version wouldn’t have worked, so small but significant modifications had to be undertaken for the sake of the singers. Directed for the stage at Strasbourg by Lucinda Childs, the validity of the new version or the power of Vivaldi’s energetic writing for the content of the opera itself was never in question, although whether the stage production managed to find an expression that was equally as successful was less certain.
Lucinda Childs is better known for her ballet creations and choreography for the US avant-garde musicians and directors who came to prominence in the 1960s - Childs most notably being involved in the Gesamkunstwerk of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. She has however increasingly been working as an opera director in recent years, although ballet inevitably plays a part in her style, and indeed in her Farnace for the Opéra National du Rhin Childs pairs each of the singers with a “double” who dances the role while the other sings. Farnace is however not an opera-ballet and Childs recognises this, so the dancing doesn’t play as large a part in the stage direction as you might imagine, but what is used is well placed and appropriate. The rhythms of Baroque music certainly lend themselves to expression in this way, helping to bring out the emotional undercurrents and turmoil of a very heated dramatic situation where Farnace, the King of Pontus, son of Mitridate, has been defeated by the Roman army under Pompeo with the aid of Berenice, his own mother-in-law. He orders his wife Tamari to commit suicide with their young son rather than be taken by the enemy, and, driven to distraction by the events that are unfolding, and gaining an opportunity through his sister Selinda sowing discord and gaining favour among the Roman military command, he attempts to assassinate Pompeo.
Childs’ direction and the use of dancers do work to an extent in getting across the dark drama that unfolds, and combined with the stage designs of Bruno de Lavenère and some interesting choreography by Childs it does prove to be an effective way of overcoming the challenge that the rather static nature of opera seria drama often presents, finding a way of getting to the heart of the characters’ inner turmoil, albeit in a fairly conventional theatrical way that isn’t particularly inspired, but shouldn’t upset traditionalists either. If it doesn’t always find a way of bringing the work to life, Vivaldi’s furiously energetic writing is fortunately more than capable of achieving the necessary impact on its own. Perhaps not enough to sustain an audience through the somewhat gruelling two hours of the first two acts, which were combined without a break, but it helps if the singing is of a high quality and, with most of the principal cast from Diego Fasolis’s 2010 recording of the Ferrare version reprising their roles onstage here at Strasbourg and the score propelled forward by the Concerto Köln under George Petrou, that at least was achieved in no uncertain terms.
The star attraction was undoubtedly the singing and performance of Max Emanuel Cencic, a countertenor with remarkable strength in this high register, much more forceful than you would normally expect to hear from this kind of singer, yet he loses none of the underlying lightness and lyricism that is required also. This was exactly the tone you would like to hear in the character of Farnace, considering the extreme range of emotions and development that he undergoes throughout the opera, and Cencic handled the flowing coloratura of the da capo arias impressively and expressively in this respect. Force was evident also in the casting of the four mezzo-soprano roles in the opera, the most commanding of which was undoubtedly Mary Ellen Nesi as the formidable Berenice, but Ruxandra Donose was also a strong, determined and driven Tamiri. Vivica Genaux was also notable as Gilade, and Carol Garcia fine as Selinda. The tenor roles of Auilo (Emiliano Gonzalez) and Pompeo (Juan Sancho) were also well performed.
The Opéra National du Rhin production at Strasbourg will be recorded for broadcast on France 3 television, and will be made available to international audiences via internet streaming on ARTE Live Web from 30th May 2012.