Beyond the Violin, Vivaldi's Virtuosic Fireworks

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To my eyes and ears, one of the highlights of New York City Ballet’s recent seasons was the 2006 premiere of Slice to Sharp, a ballet set by choreographer Jorma Elo to music predominantly written by Vivaldi.

For an ear accustomed to the familiar calls of The Four Seasons, violin concertos like the composer’s Op. 3 No. 8 and Op. 8 No. 5 extended into the exotically unfamiliar, offering a blaze of virtuosity and a seamless weld of movement to music. Elo described the score as “Extreme playing on the edge of madness.” And while the New York Times’s John Rockwell suggested that “more contemporary music might have worked even better,” the hard 21st-century angles of Elo’s choreography would not fit more potently than they do in the graceful early 18th-century archways of the Red Priest. Almost six years later and I still get slightly emotional describing some of the turns and twists.

Imagine now those same sonic arabesques and attitudes tempered not only with movement but vocals. Vivaldi, who would have turned 334 Sunday, imbued a similar style of technical dazzle into his operatic works. While up until the end of the last century these operas were relative obscurities, bold commitments by record labels Virgin and Naïve to breathe new life into the composer’s canon of operas, the official tally of which skews between the low 20s and low 50s. Vivaldi’s love of the violin was fostered as a young boy by his violinist father and has accounted for a large amount of the composer’s canon. But in his adult years, the Holy Roller turned to the voice—in particular the voice of soprano Anna Tessieri Girò as a new paramour. La Girò, along with her sister, traveled in the composer’s entourage, and were often rumored to be doing more than traveling with the composer.

While Virgin has effectively mainstreamed operas like Bajazet, Il Farnace and Ercole sul Termodonte, featuring such high-profile singers as Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato, Rolando Villazón and Max Emanuel Cencic, the more art-house Naïve has taken the geekier indie approach in its Vivaldi Edition. Under the directorship of musicologist Alberto Basso, the goal is to record as many of the composer’s 450 works housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, paying no small amount of attention to the original manuscripts and attempting to get as much to the heart of the composer’s original intentions as is possible. There are equally notable voices like Sandrine Piau, Simone Kermes and Philippe Jaroussky, but they seem to call from some dark reaches of the past, sounding like themselves but also a touch different on a Vivaldi Edition recording than their other albums.

Perhaps no musician embodies the same historically informed zeitgeist than conductor Jordi Savall, co-founder of the achingly accurate ensemble Hespèrion XXI. Far from a glamorous young maestro along the lines of Dudamel, Nézet-Seguin or Harding (he looks more like he stepped out of Hogwarts’s music conservatory, a hybrid of Kevin Kline and Rasputin), Savall nevertheless remains a youthful firebrand energy in his zealous devotion to original manuscripts and capturing a sound seemingly impossible to produce due to the technical limitations of the early 1700s.

At the helm of the newest release in Naïve’s Vivaldi canon—the world premiere recording of Teuzzone, a Poppea-esque tale of political and romantic intrigue—Savall grounds us in the Venetian home of the first public opera houses. He cracks the emotional coding of the Baroque era to reveal a wellspring of love, hate, bile, revenge and desire, while simultaneously revealing the elements of Vivaldi’s forebear in Monteverdi (in an Act I entrance, there’s the unmistakable taste of Monteverdi’s prelude to L’Orfeo) and hinting at what’s to come in the Italianate Handel (notably in arias like “Base al regno e guida al trono”).

But the greatest service Savall does to Vivaldi’s music is allowing it to move with the freedom inherent to one of Peter Martins’s prima ballerinas. Take, for instance, the tumultuous waters of the aria “In trono assiso” (a work to which Mozart owes much thanks for his own Apollo et Hyacinthus aria, “Ut navis in aequore luxuriante”). Separated by a brief recitative, the music then launches into a similarly paced “Taci per poco ancora.” Savall makes the rhythmic connection, but where “Trono” is full of masculine, declamatory brawn, “Taci” takes the feminine tack, blithe and breathless in its delivery. It’s a vocal pas de deux that would make Balanchine at once giddy and envious.

However, for such an expansive canon and prominent exponents, Vivaldi’s operas get pretty short shrift in the States, especially New York. Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 season included Griselda, a work whose aria “Agitata da due venti” was repurposed for the Met’s Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island as an 11 o’clock number for Danielle de Niese and effectively the composer's Met debut. Perhaps the size of the Metropolitan Opera House would eclipse the intimacies of Vivaldi’s score (not so on Naïve recording, where you can hear Savall breathe in time to the music if you crank the volume up). But with City Opera renewing its commitment to Baroque works this month in a production of Telemann’s Orpheus at El Museo del Barrio, perhaps now is the time to start supplementing their heroic Handel revival with a Vivaldi series. It seems like an appropriate gift for next year’s big 3-3-5, and there’s at least one choreographer who could surely supplement the aural spectacle with some magnificent movement.