Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava - 2017
Václav Luks, David Radok, Lucile Richardot, Olivia Vermeulen, Kangmin Justin Kim, Fernando Guimarães, Lisandro Abadie, Lenka Máčiková
Culturebox - 9th March 2017
Composed for Venice in 1716, Vivaldi's fourth opera, Arsilda, Regina di Ponto is a typical example of the established opera seria form, a royal intrigue filled with disguises and mistaken identities that cause much confusion and turmoil in the political and romantic concerns of the kingdom. What can't be disguised however is Vivaldi's lively and vigorous approach to the music, which is vividly brought out in this performance of the opera by the Czech baroque ensemble Collegium 1704 conducted by Václav Luks in the first staged performance of the work in 300 years. It's the stripping away of disguises to the heart of the true sentiments underneath that also forms the basis for the Bratislava production directed by David Radok.
Like most early baroque operas, there is a little bit of a backstory to the considerable complications that have arisen which need to be resolved over the course of the opera. Following the death of the King of Cilicia, the Queen has managed affairs until her son Tamese is of the age to rule. A marriage has also been arranged between Tamese and Arsilda, the daughter of the King of Pontus to consolidate the throne and secure the kingdom from threats from their enemies. Unfortunately Tamese is believed drowned at sea in a shipwreck, so the Queen, needing a successor to the throne, has disguised Lisea, Tamese's twin sister, to take his place.
As the opera starts, Arsilda isn't happy that her fiancé hasn't shown much in the way of amorous intentions towards her. Since she is also being pursued by Barzane - formerly the fiancé of Lisea - this causes her some confusion and doubts about the marriage. Lisea, disguised as Tamese and feeling betrayed at Barzane's behaviour, is no less confused about how she is going to make this arrangement work. Without any plan, she puts her faith in the passing of time and unexpected events to sort things out. This is a wise policy which it has to be said is not often taken by meddling rulers in opera seria, because - you will not be surprised to find out - Lisea's twin brother Tamese is not actually dead, but alive and unaccountably employed in the court as a gardener. Not that this makes the ensuing complications any less troubling for all those involved.
Nor indeed does it make the complications any easier for the audience to figure out. Aside from the confusions over identity - which is indeed very hard to keep up with and which I'm not even going to attempt to unravel - the plot itself, the sentiments behind them and the path to resolution aren't that difficult to grasp. Basically, everyone thinks they are in love with the wrong person not knowing that they are actually the right person, but in disguise. At the same time, just to add to their woes, they don't really believe they love the person they are with, even if they can't quite figure out that the person they think they are with is not the person they think.
It sounds complicated, but all it is really illustrating is how love is never as straightforward and as simple as we might like to think it ought to be. In Arsilda, Regina di Ponto, the heart that knows its own mind and can't be denied without it resulting in much unhappiness and regret. And long arias of woe of course, although on that front Vivaldi is rather more concise and punchy in delivery, without all the endless da capo reiterations. And when you get down to the root cause of all their concerns about whether she/he (or indeed in the travesti/castrato make up of baroque opera is he/she actually a she/he?) is in love with them, it very much sets the same sense of confusion and fear about whether we will find our true love.
If you're Lisea (disguised as Tamese), you could put your faith in time and events sorting things out for themselves, but the matter is more easily resolved than that in Vivaldi's opera: everyone eventually simply removes their disguises and goes back to being who they truly are. If that's not the cleverest plot development I've ever come across in the complicated love entanglements of an opera seria, it's certainly one of the neatest, with the added benefit that everyone seems to come out of the arrangement happy. It also has a more down-to-earth quality than the clemency or wisdom of a great ruler handing down a solution, and it has the more basic universal truth of 'be yourself' within it.
If David Radok's direction and the ravishing costume designs of Zuzana Ježková don't contribute a great deal to making it clear who exactly is who they say they are and who they really are, they certainly set about illustrating that essential underlying theme. For the first two thirds or so of the opera, everyone is dressed in elaborate and somewhat stylised 18th century court costumes, with heavy wigs and considerable make-up. Gradually, each of the characters strips out of those costumes, down to rather more simple modern suits and slips as they strip themselves of their false identities and reveal their true self. Stripped of all their royal finery and away from the court intrigue they are ordinary people with everyday human feelings. It's a simple gesture, but one that neatly encapsulates everything that the opera seems to be about.
There's not a great deal of insight or elaboration that you can make out of the plot of Arsilda without unnecessarily over-complicating it further, but Vivaldi's music has its own charm that ensures that there is never a dull moment and that you don't really have to care if you haven't grasped who each of the characters are. All the more so with a riveting performance of the period instrument Collegium 1704 ensemble under Václav Luks that makes the work sound so fresh and alive. All the singing performances are also an absolute delight; Olivia Vermeulen's Arsilda is impressive, as is Fernando Guimarães's Tamese, but it's Lucile Richardot's Lisea and Kangmin Justin Kim who manage to touch more deeply on the underlying simplicity that Luks and Collegium 1704 find at the heart of Vivaldi's score, the opera ending on a reflective note of peaceful simplicity and harmony.