Vivaldi, the dramatic

Times Staff Writer

Looking for some Vivaldi CDs? Try and click on the Baroque composer’s name. You will be confronted with 2,143 releases. Narrow your search to “The Four Seasons,” and the choices are still overwhelming. Schwann Opus, the classical music CD catalog, lists dozens of versions of what is one of the most popular pieces in all of classical music. Among interpretive options are these famous Baroque concertos performed on modern violins or 18th century fiddles. You can hear it transcribed for guitar, flute, harp or even traditional Chinese instruments.

Turn on the television or radio, and it won’t be long before you hear “The Four Seasons” backing up a commercial. For its magazine ads a while ago, Saab enticed convertible buyers by claiming that its car went well with Vivaldi, hoping we would imagine ourselves cruising through the country in a convertible, top down, and impulsive, sprightly idiosyncratic music, brilliant as the bright sun, pouring out of the stereo.

This is not exactly the profile of a neglected composer, a victim of history. And with Vivaldi appearing on such inane best-selling collections as “The Most Relaxing Classical Music Album in the World -- Ever!” “Build Your Baby’s Brain,” “Best of the Millennium: Top 40 Classical Hits” and “Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music,” a vacation from Vivaldi might seem the healthiest choice these days.


Or at least “The Four Seasons.”

So what about the rest of his oeuvre? He was prolific, but he has the reputation of having written the same concerto 500 times -- always the sawing rhythms and predictable contrasts between soloists and orchestral group. And who even wants to contemplate the operas? Vivaldi boasted of writing 94, of which about half are known. He favored archaic, stilted, generally incompressible librettos.

He had a short attention span, and the operas tend to include enormous chunks of recitative broken up by relatively brief arias. Indeed, it is the rare concerto movement or aria or anything else in Vivaldi that lasts five minutes or more. It is hardly surprising that Vivaldi is the classical composer who comes closest to fitting into the three-minute formulaic song format of the most commercially drawn pop music.

Yet, strange as it might seem, there is a Vivaldi revival underway, and it is proving that much of the common wisdom about the Red Priest (he was ordained, and a redhead) is wrong. Not all of those 500-odd concertos are bursting with invention, and he repeated himself often. But with new recordings of little-known scores starting to come out, it is suddenly apparent that Vivaldi’s great facility for brilliant instrumental color and stunning dramatic effect is surprisingly wide-ranging. Even more amazing, the operas are proving worth a hard new look.

There are two factors driving the Vivaldi revival. The most important is the liveliness and daring of Italian historical performance practice groups such as Il Giardino Armonico, Venice Baroque Orchestra and Europa Galante. They play Vivaldi as vividly and freely as jazz. Almost as important is the fact that the National University Library in Turin has at last made available some 450 unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts (the recording company Opus 111 has plans to record them all). There is a lot to discover; a relatively small percentage of his music has actually been heard in modern times, and now that is changing.

Europa Galante’s recording of concertos for mandolin and diverse instruments provides an excellent example of the new developments in Vivaldi performances. It is a dazzling display of virtuosity; Vivaldi’s gripping rhythms and wonderful orchestrations leap out with such surprisingly freshness the music sounds almost modern, a kind of Baroque Steve Reich.

In the Venice Baroque Orchestra’s latest disc of late violin concertos, all recorded for the first time, the engagingly expressive violinist Giuliano Carmignola demonstrates just how gorgeous some of Vivaldi’s melodies can be.


Two new opera recordings are downright revelations. Vivaldi may not exhibit the emotional depth of Handel, the greatest Baroque opera composer, but he wrote spectacularly for the voice. In her 1999 “Vivaldi Album” with Il Giardino Armonico, Cecilia Bartoli revealed the sheer audience appeal that Vivaldi’s flashy arias can have. However, the latest CDs of complete operas, performed with dramatic urgency, reveal a genuine man of the theater.

The slam against the librettos is deserved, as the convoluted plots of both of these operas demonstrate. “Farnace” is a drama of ancient Rome, packed with heroic posturing and villainous spite. Compared with Farnace’s mean-spirited mother, Berenice, Joan Crawford was a pussycat. In “L’Olimpiade,” set around the ancient Greek Olympics, pathetically bewildered lovers confuse honor and devotion to near tragic ends.

Both operas are long but surprisingly fast-paced. Vivaldi sets scenes and captures mercurial emotions with swift accuracy and stunning directness. The level of inspiration for a composer who wrote several operas a year is extraordinary.

“L’Olimpiade” is the first opera in the Opus 111 Vivaldi Edition, of which there are six earlier releases of concertos, cantatas and sacred music, all packaged with startling cover graphics of fashion models. Vivaldi, these discs, seem to be saying, is as today as W magazine. And maybe he is. The previous Opus 111 recordings are knockouts, and “L’Olimpiade” is no exception. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducts this as brisk, precipitous theater, daring the singers to take dramatic chances.

“Farnace” documents a live performance given in Spain, and it has a twist -- the inclusion of some instrumental numbers and one aria by an obscure Vivaldi contemporary, Francesco Corselli, following the practice at the time.

This performance, a sophisticated and nuanced interpretation conducted by Jordi Savall, is even better than that of “L’Olimpiade,” but the opera is also better. At its heart is the aria “Gelido in ogni vena,” in which Farnace’s blood runs cold when he hears of the death of his son. It is one of the most beautiful, and at around 10 minutes, most extended, works I know by Vivaldi. The performance of it by baritone Furio Zanasi is exquisite.


The singing on these sets is very fine. Sara Mingardo, a deep and luscious contralto, stands out. The only complaint is the paucity of men’s voices, because in both cases women rather than countertenors are assigned to the castrati roles. When performed with this kind of nerve and verve, Vivaldi proves downright addictive. And maybe Saab was right. The seemingly endless supply of short, lissome movements and arias really is just the thing for giving freeway commuters the illusion of speeding along on glorious country roads.



Rating the discs

VIVALDI: Concertos for Mandolin and for Various Instruments.

Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, cond. (Virgin)

Rating: *** 1/2

VIVALDI: Late Violin Concertos.

Giulino Carmignola, violin; Venice Baroque Orchestra; Andrea Marcon, cond. (Sony Classical)

Rating: ****

VIVALDI: “L’Olimpiade.”

Sara Mingardo, contralto; Roberta Invernizzi, soprano,; Sonia Prina, contralto; Marianna Kulikova, mezzo-soprano. Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini, cond. (Opus 111)

Rating: *** 1/2

VIVALDI: “Farnace.”

Furano Zanasi, baritone; Sara Mingardo, contralto; Adriana Fernandez, soprano; Sonia Prina, contralto. Le Concert des Nations; Jordi Savall, cond. (AliaVox)

Rating: ****


Mark Swed is The Times’ music critic.