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Even among Vivaldi’s rarely performed operatic works, L’Oracolo in Messenia stands out as an absolute rarity – and the reason is that there is no surviving score. The fact that it has been performed at all is violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi’s creative re-invention based on a patchwork of numbers borrowed mainly from Geminiano Giacomelli (who composed a work on the same libretto), but also from operas by other composers and by Vivaldi himself. Taking a little longer than two hours and based on a libretto full of volte-face, Biondi’s pastiche is entertaining enough, even if it doesn’t avoid the sensation of sameness: all numbers are either arie di bravura or di furore that sound a bit like each other. Vivaldi composed some beautiful meditative and expressive arie, and the libretto would certainly gain in having incorporated some of them for the sake of contrast (isn’t it one of the key concepts of baroque art?).

Biondi conducted his edition in concert in Vienna in 2012 and a CD has been recorded live then. As a celebration of the 60th anniversary of its concert hall, the Prefecture of Kanagawa has invited the Italian conductor and his L’Europa Galante to re-create the concert, this time in full staging. Although the budget seems to have been modest, director Tadashi Miroku made the right choice when he decided to find inspiration in Japanese theatre. In its cleanliness, Izumi Matsuoka’s sets are vaguely reminiscent of Noh; Midori Hagino’s costumes too suggest that tradition, albeit with a splash of Issey MIyake. It is clear that the Personenregie intended to infuse in the cast Japan’s highly aestheticised stock gestures, but either communication problems or limited rehearsal prevented complete success here: some singers seem to have intuitively understood that, while others preferred to do their thing. That – and some amateurism in the production – made an experience that could be illuminating only very interesting.

The cast is basically the same as seen in Vienna, but for three singers. While the CDs treasure Ann Hallenberg’s flashing performance in the key role of Merope, Marianne Beate Kielland – in spite of a more substantial voice – is tamer of temper and not truly adept with Italian language. Her mezzo soprano has a truly pleasant and clean sound and she is stylish and committed, but this repertoire requires real command of the text. Back in Vienna, Romina Basso seemed somehow too formidable as Elmira, while today’s Marina de Liso’s fruity mezzo is more feminine in sound and readier to soften and float mezza voce. It is also rich, vibrant and spacious. Some would say “too much” for Vivaldi. The last replacement is Martina Belli, who takes the bad-guy role of Anassandro, previously cast with Xavier Sabata. There are interesting dark sounds and textual intelligence, but it is still a potential.

Vivica Genaux (Epitide) did not seem to be in her best voice: she sounds less abrasive in the recording. That did not prevent her from tackling difficult coloratura with aplomb and singing expressively and stylishly as always. Although the role of Licisco takes Franziska Gottwald to her limits, she goes to her limits without looking back. An intelligence and compelling performance. Julia Lezhneva appears here in the small role of Trasimede, but gets two showstoppers – one of them Broschi’s Son qual nave (created for Broschi’s brother, Farinelli). Some of her trills seemed to be made exclusively of one note, but other than this that was a Golden-age coruscating coloratura display. As much as in the recording, Magnus Staveland, for all his commitment, is not at home in florid writing, not to mention that his dulcet tenor does not suggest any evil unless distorted in Charaktertenor style.

When it comes to Biondi and the Europa Galante, one can only praise the sense of drama, the wide-ranging tonal colouring, the rhythmic alertness and the virtuoso quality of its strings. Bravi!

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