Vivaldi: Il Farnace

Mary-Ellen Nesi Farnace, Sonia Prina Tamiri, Roberta Mameli Gilade, Delphine Galou Berenice, Loriana Castellano Selinda, Magnus Staveland Aquilio, Emanuele D’Aguanno Pompeo, Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Federico Maria Sardelli
151′ (2 DVDs)
Dynamic 37670

Farnace was first performed at the Teatro S Angelo in Venice in February 1727 and frequently thereafter in other cities. The plot of the libretto by A M Luccini is a sequel to the story of the struggle of Mitridate, king of the Hellenic kingdom of Pontus, against Roman occupation. That struggle has now been taken up by Farnace, his elder son, who like his father has problems with an enemy within. Berenice, the mother of his wife Tamiri, is a Roman sympathiser seeking the destruction of Pontus and its rulers as revenge for her husband’s earlier death at the hands of Mitridate. It’s a plot that allows not only for political and amorous intrigue, but also sly digs at Roman imperialism, always a popular topic with Venetian audiences.

The present DVDs were filmed at performances at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence in May 2013. They represent yet another depressing episode in the dismal failure of attempts to mount opera seria on the contemporary stage. The performance employs what is laughingly touted by Dynamic as a ‘critical edition’ by Bernardo Ticci. Googling ‘Farnace Ticci’ produces the rather more accurate description ‘arr. B Ticci’. Suspicions are immediately aroused by the discovery that Ticci’s edition is cast in two, not the standard three acts, a format never used by drammi per musica (opera seria). Comparison with the original 1727 libretto reveals that not only has there been a reduction from 27 to 23 numbers, but that after the first few numbers of act 1, what is performed bears no relationship to the libretto or indeed to that of the 1737 version recorded by Jordi Savall. Most damaging of all, Ticci contrives a spurious tragic conclusion by having Farnace sing ‘Gelido in ogni vena’, an aria from later versions of act 2 in which he laments the supposed death of his young son at the hands of Berenice. Since we have no evidence the child is dead (he certainly isn’t in the original libretto), the whole farrago of nonsense strikes an utterly false note. I strongly suspect, too, that there has been considerable tampering with the orchestration, though have not been able to find a score on-line to check.

The production is little better, dark and dismal in the literal sense, with stark post-modernist tubular erections at various angles supplemented by various oddities such as what look like upright florescent tubes and, at one point, an array of illuminated doughnuts. An apron, on which a number of arias are sung, is built out from the stage around the orchestra. Most extraordinary of all is that almost all arias are sung at music stands in the fashion of a concert performance. Whether this is supposed to be some kind of observation that the arias in opera seria are a static form, I have no idea, but it looks absurd when done in a fully staged production. It does, however, have one advantage, which is that there is therefore mercifully no stage ‘business’ during arias. Costumes are largely dowdy but serviceable, with the Romans distinguished from the locals by their wearing of breastplates, though to comical effect by the proconsul Pompeo and legionary Aquilio, both of whom for some bizarre reason wear a dinner jacket over their breastplate.

It is sad (and not to his credit) to find one of the finest of today’s Vivaldi conductors involved with such fatuous stuff. Federico Maria Sardelli’s direction has all the drive and intensity we have come to expect from him in the composer’s music, although even he cannot disguise the patently obvious modern instruments of a large contingent of Maggio Musicale strings. The cast, including some outstanding Baroque singers as it does, deserves better than this miserable effort. I except the tenors who sing the roles of Aquilio and Pompeo; their contribution is best passed over in polite silence. Mary-Ellen Nesi is a strong, incisive Farnace, pursuing the mental cruelty to which he subjects his long-suffering wife with relentless ferocity, though the voice does sound as if it is being pushed at times. Sonia Prina is a splendid Tamiri, resolute in the face of the threat to her young son, deeply affecting when she believes she has lost him. Among the most telling moments are the confrontations with her mother Berenice, superbly sung and acted by the French mezzo Delphine Galou, the only one of the cast who suggests she understands gesture. Loriana Castellano’s Selinda, the sister of Farnace, is capably sung, but while Roberta Mameli sings stylishly and winningly, her Gilade is marred by some undisciplined singing in the upper register.
Vivaldi may not be among the best Baroque opera composers – his output is today overrated in my view – but Farnace is one of his better operas. It certainly deserves much better than it gets here.

Brian Robins