Pairing and Elaboration

In both cases this is achieved through a strophic
two-stanza arietta, itself an uncommon formal resource in
Vivaldi’s operatic output. In these ariette Vivaldi implements
by musical means the dramatic coupling of the two female roles in the
libretto, dwelling on two key moments in the action when they are first of
one mind, and then expressing directly contrasting emotions. Since by
Vivaldi’s day it was expected that only the primo uomo and
prima donna were to sing together, these two ariette are
especially remarkable, and provide both a dramatic and a musical challenge to
the performers.

The first arietta takes place in the second scene of Act II, when
Tito decrees the impending double marriage of Servilia (princess of the
Latins) with his own son Manlio (the primo uomo of the opera) and
his daughter Vitellia with Geminio, prince of the Latins and brother to
Servilia: Vitellia’s opening stanza rejoicing on her friend’s
smiling at the prospect of love is answered in both musical and emotional
unison by Servilia’s declaration of fealty to her joyful
“sister-in-law-to-be”. Manlio’s subsequent arrival and his
announcement that he has slain Geminio in battle creates apparently identical
responses of shock and anger by both women, but by Scene 9 we see that their
common ground has eroded. When the two women sing their second
arietta in this latter scene, their music is again the same but
their messages are diametrically opposed: Servilia declares her love for
Manlio despite her grief for her brother, while Vitellia proclaims her hatred
for Manlio and her wish for her brother’s death.

At the end of the first arietta, “D’improvviso riede
il riso,” Vivaldi indicates that Vitellia and Servilia should repeat
the arietta in unison (“all’unisono”). Dantone and
his cast have chosen an altered approach: while Ann Hallenberg’s and
Marijana Milanovic’s timbres are close enough (and the simultaneous
presentation of the two texts sonically confusing enough) to make it
difficult to discriminate entirely between their voices, it appears that they
are taking turns singing Vivaldi’s melody and adding new counterpoint
to that melody. This is a satisfying solution that is in keeping with
Dantone’s overall approach to musical elaboration in this recording, to
which we will return below.

The second arietta, “Dar la morte a te mia vita,” is
the first moment at which Servilia and Vitellia display their disunity (up to
this point they have had common purpose); perhaps because of this, Vivaldi
does not explicitly call for a unison repetition of the stanzas, as he had
for “D’Improvviso”. Given that the first arietta
did call for this unison, however, it would not have been unreasonable to
have one here as well – which could have provided Dantone and his
singers with a chance for an even more drastic simultaneous departure from
the arietta melody to exemplify the characters’ opposing
goals. Regrettable, too, is the slow tempo chosen for this passage, since it
makes the singers’ short repeated exclamations of “no, no,
no” sound heavy and almost pedantic, and the overall effect is not one
of determination (which the text would seem to imply) but one of
sluggishness. As a comparison one might propose another recording of this
arietta in the same NaÔve Vivaldi series, from Vivaldi’s own
“greatest hits” compilation, reviewed elsewhere on this site and
also featuring Ann Hallenberg. See
VIVALDI: Arie d’Opera (17 February 2006)
. (Both ariette are
included in the compilation, which may speak to Vivaldi’s own high
esteem for this experimental form, and both are sung with a third repetition
of the melody and the simultaneous presentation of both characters’
stanzas. The performers on the compilation recording do not, however,
introduce ornamentation in the “combined stanza” – Ann
Hallenberg’s Servilia and Guillemette Laurens’s Vitellia sing in
unison, making their version of “D’improvviso” sound
simplistic in comparison to the one offered on this recording.)

The lack of an ornamented “combined stanza” in the recording
under consideration is especially frustrating given the otherwise
extraordinary approach to ornamentation provided by Dantone and his cast. In
the past decade, singers have become increasingly sophisticated in their
ability to elaborate on the repeat of the first section in da capo arias,
providing modern listeners with a more and more nuanced evocation of the
excitement provoked by superstar singers of the early eighteenth century in
their adoring audiences. However, elaboration of the da capo section has
primarily been understood as an addition of ornaments – trills, runs to
fill in larger intervals, triplets in place of duplets, and so forth. The
basic contour of the melody has generally been kept unchanged; elaboration
has provided filigree to the melodic framework.

In this recording, Dantone and his cohort break from this practice; in
doing so, they are taking a page from an approach recently chosen by
instrumentalists in their work on baroque variation technique. At the heart
of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century instrumental practice was the
notion that a framework for variation is neither solely a melody nor just a
bass line nor merely a chord structure, but all three simultaneously. A
creative approach to ornamentation in such a context requires the ability to
move freely between those three components – giving some space to the
melody, but otherwise experimenting with the implications of the harmony and
pushing the envelope on those implications.

It is not surprising that the idea of bringing such an approach to da capo
vocal elaboration should come from Dantone, since – while he is a
self-styled neophyte with Vivaldian opera – for more than two decades
he has been a prizewinning harpsichordist and teacher of both basso continuo
and improvisation practice. At the helm of the Accademia Bizantina, Dantone
has directed (among other projects) a remarkable recording of the complete
works of Corelli in which he very successfully coaches his ensemble in
experimenting with the kind of instrumental elaboration for which the Roman
violin virtuoso was justly renowned in his day. Indeed, in a brief interview
published in the CD booklet for Tito Manlio, Dantone takes full
credit for devising the approach (“I wrote the Da Capos for my
singers…”). It is a little bit disappointing to think that the
verve with which the da capo elaborations are presented in this recording was
so carefully staged, and not devised by the vocalists themselves. However, it
is also true that singers today are less versed in improvised elaboration
than the virtuosi whom Benedetto Marcello instructed,
tongue-in-cheek, in his satire of operatic practice Il teatro alla
, first published just a couple of years before the premiËre of
Tito Manlio: “When the da capo returns, [the singer] will
change the entire aria as it suits him, and even though the changed version
will have no correspondence with the bass or the violin parts, and the tempo
will have to be changed, that doesn’t matter, because the composer (as
we have said above) is resigned to this.” (Benedetto Marcello, Il
teatro alla moda
, introduzione di Sergio Miceli [Roma, Castelvecchi:
1993], 50; my translation.)

Dantone’s approach to “chang[ing] the entire aria” is
perhaps most dramatic in Servilia’s aria “AndrÚ fida e
sconsolata” from Act II, scene 14. This is a particularly opportune
aria for “framework experimentation”, since the melody
instruments (violins, recorders) do not just provide the refrains that
punctuate the aria (as is standard in most of Vivaldi’s da capo works)
but play “colla parte” (i.e. with the singer) throughout. This
constant musical doubling is a resource for Dantone, since by the beginning
of the singer’s entrance in the da capo he quickly shifts the rhythmic
pattern of the vocal part, allowing the instruments to remind us of
Vivaldi’s melody while Hallenberg adds an increasingly elaborate
counterpoint to that original melody. Dantone’s sense of
Vivaldi’s style is remarkably astute, and if one were not aware that
the original aria calls for an exact repeat of the opening section, it would
be possible to understand this as a formal experiment on Vivaldi’s part
… that is to say, an aria with a composed-out alteration of the da
capo, something that Handel occasionally did later in his career (for example
in the famous entrance aria for Cleopatra in his Giulio Cesare).
Dantone’s experiment with “AndrÚ fida” is not just
musically powerful but also artistically important because it allows us a
glimpse into the dynamic possibilities of the da capo form, which to this day
is often understood as a static structure, even despite our growing
sophistication in the use of ornamentation practice.

Marcello’s sly dig at the “ignorant” singers who
reconfigure the da capo with little regard to harmony or instrumental
obbligati is almost certainly as much an overstatement as the rest of his
fabulously funny pamphlet, since the great virtuosi of the Italian
operatic stage spent many years studying harmony and counterpoint (and
harpsichord, and often other instruments as well) as part of their vocal
training. We may well imagine that Farinelli, Caffarelli, Faustina, and the
other great male and female stars of their day could readily improvise
appropriately over a given harmonic framework, and deployed that skill in
elaborating the da capo well beyond a handful of trills and runs. If Dantone
was indeed instrumental (!) in shaping his singers’ decisions on the da
capo for this recording, one can hope that they (and other vocal superstars
of our own time) will take up the challenge of “changing the entire
aria as it suits [them]”, further bringing out the dynamic potential of
Baroque da capo form.

Andrew Dell’Antonio
Head, Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division
School of Music
The University of Texas at Austin

image_description=Antonio Vivaldi: Tito Manlio
product_title=Antonio Vivaldi: Tito Manlio
product_by=Nicola Ulivieri (Tito), Karina Gauvin (Manlio), Ann Hallenberg (Servilia), Marijana Mijanovic (Vitelia), Debora Beronesi (Lucio), Barbara Di Castri (Decio), Mark Milhofer (Geminio), Christian Senn (Lindo), Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (cond.)
product_id=NaÔve OP 30413 [3CDs]