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Fanfare Magazine: 42:5 (05-06 /2019) 
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... strongest recommendation.

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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

Here is the latest release of the Vivaldi Edition, namely his opera seria Il Giustino, RV 717, composed for the Teatro Capranica in Rome for Carnival of 1724. The circumstances of its commissioning, as explained in the excellent booklet notes by Reinhard Strohm, involved the impresario using the composer due to his connections with the Borghese family, not to mention that composers of note were few and far between at the time. The leading composer Francesco Gasparini had retired but continued to lead a faction against the so-called newer operatic style coming out of both Naples and Venice, and so Vivaldi was in the unenviable position of pleasing neither side. Nonetheless, he persisted, and at its premiere the opera was successful, more so since the text had been a favorite on the Roman stage since its writing in 1683 with music by Giovanni Legrenzi.

Originally, the entire cast was male, since women were prohibited from appearing on stage, but the story of the Emperor Justinian, who apparently used a decree that set aside caste differences to marry an actress, Theodora, was probably not too far from Vivaldi’s thoughts, given that he had possibly already become a mentor to soprano Anna Girò, even thought he himself had taken Holy Orders. While keeping to the requirements of the Roman stage, his composition makes it clear that the work could have a life outside the restrictions.

The plot surrounds the rise of the peasant Justinius to Imperial power, based upon Roman history of the fifth century. In act I the widowed Empress Arianna marries the Illyrian nobleman Anastasio over the attentions of co-Emperor Vitaliano. In the second scene Giustino (Justinian) farms his land, dreaming of military glory, and when he falls asleep Fortune proclaims a brilliant future for him. He saves Leocasta from a bear and thereby earns a visit to the Imperial court. Meanwhile, Andronico disguises himself as a woman and is given to Leocasta as a maid. Arianna, who has followed Anastasio to battle, is captured, and when he takes Giustino into his service he incites the jealousy of both Leocasta and Andronico. Vitaliano threatens Arianna with death if she will not love him, but she spurns him. In act II, both Giustino and Anastasio are shipwrecked on the same island where Polidarte has taken Arianna to be an offering for a sea monster. Giustino kills the monster and all depart on a rescue ship manned by Amanzio. Giustino’s victory causes Leocasta to seek revenge, and in the meantime Anastasio has won a victory over Vitaliano. When Arianna seeks to bestow more favors on Giustino, both of the co-Emperors threaten him. Andronico abducts Leocasta with the intent to rape her, but Giustino once again intervenes, and both he and Leocasta proclaim their love. In act III Vitaliano and Andronico escape captivity, and Arianna attempts to give Giustino the crown jewels as a reward. Amanzio overhears this and denounces Giustino to Anastasio, who condemns him to death. Leocasta manages to free Giustino, but when both Anastasio and Vitaliano come upon him with murder on their minds, the shade of their father tells them that Giustino is their long-lost brother. Amanzio usurps the crown, but when he condemns Anastasio and Arianna, Giustino and his army save them. In the aftermath, he is made co-emperor with Anastasio and allowed to marry Leocasta.

As with most opera serias of the time, this is a long and very convoluted plot that has enough twists and turns to keep one guessing as to where the plot is going. No matter, since audiences of the time (and probably today) would pay more attention to Vivaldi’s music. As with other works, he raided earlier pieces, and so it is not surprising to hear Fortune appear in the first act to the music of La Primavera. The remainder of the music, regardless of whether it came from a pre-extant work or was reused later on, offers a good picture of Vivaldi as a dramatic composer. While the plot and its various twists gives a plethora of possibilities for dramatic effect, Vivaldi concentrated on a more conservative approach that concentrates upon the singers and their display. For example, in the first act Anastasio’s aria “Un vostro sguardo” begins with a pompous declamation, following which a brief minor mode intrudes, and then the final unison before the voice enters with a virtuoso display that lasts only a few measures. His second aria, “Vedrò con mio diletto,” is longer, but more emotive, with a mincing accompaniment and floating lyrical line in which the coloratura is quite restrained. Apparently the “delight” of his soul is reflective rather than joyful. In the second act Vitaliano’s “Quel torrente” has a clipping minuet as his tears overflow their metaphorical banks, but it seems less a flood of emotion than a light and airy stream. Arianna’s exclamation of joy (“Dalle gioie del core”) is fraught with conflicting moods in its minor key and rolling coloratura; things are not so joyful after all, it would seem. Act III opens with Vitaliano’s “revenge aria,” which is hardly the furore one might expect, but rather an opportunity for the tenor to display his vocalises. Giustino answers this by a more gentle aria in which the running wind (zeffiretto) sort of runs along syllabically with a steady gait. In Amanzio’s aria “Or che cinto” Vivaldi introduces a pair of solo horns, which give the piece a more regal air, though they compete with the rather extensive coloratura of the voice. And so it goes. The bulk of the arias are relatively short, in keeping with the copious amount of text (and no doubt with an eye on the style of Legrenzi), but Vivaldi keeps the focus on the voice, as one might expect in the style.

Il Giustino is an excellent example of the sort of opera that made Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer in the genre. The numbers are well composed, and there is ample opportunity for the sort of display that audiences would have found the raison d’être for attending the theater in the first place. The recording does this work proud, despite the fact that it probably won’t appear in the repertory. The tempos are well considered and the conductor makes use of some stage effects (crowd sounds, the wind of the shipwreck, etc.), which enhances its aural appeal. The voices are universally excellent, with good phrasing, fine sense of pitch, and a good understanding of the vocal requirements of their music. In short, like other operas in the Vivaldi Edition, this is a work well worth having and deserves my strongest recommendation.

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