The history of opera is inseparably linked with the biographies of singers; audiences have always been fascinated by both musical prowess and behind the scenes goings-on. The battle for prestige and fame was heated and passionate in the Baroque era, with legendary rivalries. Fiercely competitive, Cuzzoni and Bordoni were among the most acclaimed divas of the age, resorting to fisticuffs on stage. Present-day prima donnas Genaux, Prina, Nesi and Basso now follow in the footsteps of their fervid predecessors, presenting on disc a tongue-in-cheek survey of standout arias for mezzo soprano and contralto. Three star mezzos and a magnificent top contralto are accompanied by the superb Greek orchestra Armonia Atenea under conductor George Petrou, winner of Germany s prestigious ECHO Klassik Prize. A stunning recital, bringing to life the rich heritage of Baroque opera the acme of musical enjoyment with the entertaining element of cultic stardom.
Vivica Genaux’s superb recording of arias by Handel and Hasse composed for Faustina Bordoni shows why that 18th-century singer, who had a notorious catfight with her rival Francesca Cuzzoni in front of the Princess of Wales, was so envied. Handel wrote some glorious arias for her, most notably Lusinghe piu care from Alessandro, beautifully sung by Genaux on the opening track. Johann Adolph Hasse didn’t quite have the magic touch of Handel musically, but he married Bordoni and then proceeded to compose at least 15 operatic roles for her – truly justifying their contemporary reputation as the power couple of 18th-century opera.
There is no complete surviving score for Vivaldi's Ercole su'l Termodonte, but there is enough existing material that modern scholars have been able to reconstruct it primarily by making new settings of the lost recitatives. The first production of the opera since Vivaldi's time was at Spoleto in 2006 in a version by Alessandro Ciccolini, which was released as a DVD. Conductor Fabio Biondi made a version introduced in Venice in 2007, which is recorded on this 2010 Virgin CD. Biondi's recording has the advantage of two international superstars in the leading roles, tenor Rolando Villazón and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, and soprano Diana Damrau is nearly in their league. Villazón's earthy voice is usually associated with 19th century and verismo Italian repertoire, but he has an acute sensitivity to Baroque vocal style, and his robust, almost baritonal tenor is entirely appropriate for a larger-than-life character like Hercules. DiDonato excels as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, singing with her characteristic brilliance and warm humanity.
Composed for the Carnival season in Verona in 1735, Bajazet is a ‘pasticcio’ opera based on the familiar story of the eponymous Turkish sultan’s imprisonment at the hands of the Tartar tyrant Tamerlane. As such, it openly uses arias by other composers, including Hasse, Broschi and Giacomelli, as well as re-cycled pieces from Vivaldi’s own operas (L’Olimpiade, Giustino, Farnace, Semiramide and Montezuma among them). But this is no mere patchwork of recycled numbers. All the ‘borrowed’ arias are expertly placed within the dramatic fabric of the work and are held together with richly composed recitatives. What we end up with is the best of the best in terms of Neapolitan-style opera – tuneful, virtuosic and passionate. Virtually every number in this recording is a highlight. What really lifts the recording is the quality of the performances. There are no holes or flaws among the experienced cast. David Daniels makes a fine Tamerlane – slippery and cruel – while Marijana Mijanovic’s Asteria packs a powerful dramatic punch. Top marks too for Vivica Genaux in the technically demanding role of Irene. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo makes a commanding Bajazet, although his tough dignity comes at the loss of some sensitivity.
L'Oracolo in Messenia, an opera written by Vivaldi for Vienna in 1740, was reconstructed by Fabio Biondi in 2011 in a triumpan open to the famous Resonanzen festival in Vienna, appropriately enough. Originally, the opera was intended to be performed in Vienna during Carnival in 1741, but due to the death of the Austrian Emperor and ultimately, himself, his plans fell through. Vivaldi expert, Fabio Biondi, reconstructed the work using a recently discovered libretto in the Library of Congress, Viavaldi s personal scores as well as those from his contemporaries. Bajazet and Ercole sul Termodonte, two other Vivaldi operas recorded for Virgin classics, also follow the magnificent example Bondi set with L'Oracolo in Messenia. This world-premier recording of Vivaldi s last Viennese opera is led by Bondi himself on the violin and comprises a high-powered cast of soprano Julia Lezhneva; mezzo sopranos Ann Hallenberg,Vivica Genaux, Romina Basso and Franziska Gottwald; Counter tenor Xavier Sabata; and tenor Magnus Staveland. The performance was greeted with a standing ovation and it was said that The festival could not have launched its 20th anniversary in more triumphant fashion.