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Cobwebs dating from the 18th century have been brushed off this work, so as to charm modern listeners, while at the same time being so close to the original that it would not shame the Red Priest. After successes in Vienna, Madrid, Brussels and Paris, Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the Ensemble Matheus are coming to Kraków with Antonio Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa.

The concert performance of this opera at the J. Słowacki Theatre opens the new season of the Opera Rara series. The organisers, by choosing this work, have splendidly realised the aims set down by the series’ initiator, Filip Berkowicz, when beginning the project last year – the presentation, above all, of works rarely played or reintroduced to listeners after an absence from concert halls lasting centuries. La fida ninfa (The Faithful Nymph) was created in the 18th century and although it attracted huge publicity on account of the splendour of its staging, shortly after its premiere the work sunk into oblivion for two centuries. It has returned to the stage thanks to contemporary stage productions: in Brussels, Paris, Nancy, and La Piccola Scala. Its reactivation was also down to the ensemble which we will be able to hear in Kraków – Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus recorded this opera for the prestigious Vivaldi Edition on the independent Naïve label (the disc was honoured in 2009 with a Diapason d’Or in the “Opera of the Year” category), and their tour has aroused the delight of listeners over the whole of Europe.

Antonio Vivaldi has entered history mainly as the composer of The Four Seasons, as well as other instrumental concertos. In fact the composer for over twenty years worked in the opera theatre and it is this genre in particular that was the centre of his interests for the majority of his career. Today we know about 50 of the operas that he composed, and Vivaldi’s correspondence suggests that there could have been almost twice this number! Currently these works are not always numbered among his most distinguished and are not considered to be on a par with the operatic achievements of other Baroque composers. It is quite possible that Vivaldi really did lack the sense of theatre and flair for drama which characterised, say, Handel. The combination of huge ambition and the ease with which he composed often caused the Venetian to accept as many commissions as possible, not paying attention, moreover, to the preposterous or insipid librettos of the operas-to-be. As a result colourless and reproducible works were produced – due to the tempo of his working methods, Vivaldi many times made use of the same arias. When harsh competition, important events and splendid singers entered the equation, however, the composer would summon all his efforts to ensure that the end result would delight his listeners.

Such was the case with La fida ninfa, performed for the first time in January 1732 at the opening of the Nuovo Teatro Filarmonico in Verona. Writing it, he had to prove that he was no worse than the Florentine Giovanni Maria Orlandini, whose opera to the same libretto was initially supposed to add splendour to the inauguration. However a series of intrigues, political and otherwise, delayed the opening of the new theatre, while also depriving Orlandini of the honour, which finally fell to Vivaldi.

The libretto written by Scipione Maffei is an example of a pastoral drama linked to Renaissance comedy and heroic drama. Licori, the nymph in the title role, held captive together with her family on the island of Naxos by Oralto, a pirate who is in love with her, meets her betrothed there who has been missing for years. After the long separation, she does not however recognise Morasto as he is acting under an assumed name, but bestows her affection on his brother, Osmino, thinking that he is her old lover. Osmino in turn becomes the object of Licori’s sister’s, Elpina’s, affections... Similar misunderstandings multiply and pile up towards a happy ending.

The plot – as is typical for 18th-century standards – is so convoluted that it is difficult to follow. La fida ninfa does however have a special charm and thanks to the music, all reservations disappear. The composer took care to ensure that every singer could display the fullness of their strengths in it. He introduced ensemble passages, including the sparkling trio in fugal form S’egli è ver concluding the first act. He also alludes to folk music, doesn’t shy away from lyrical arias and employs baroque bel canto, in short, he employs a whole arsenal of methods to arose the listener’s delight. Also deserving of special mention is the orchestral part. The Ensemble Matheus, which will be performing it in Kraków, prove that Vivaldi deliberately made the instrumental ensemble an equal partner, and not just a backdrop, to the singers. What the critics have admired above all in their recording and performances is their extraordinary ability to render the illustrative character of the music. A reviewer for “The Times” wrote: “An aria addressed to gentle breezes? The orchestra whispers, just above audibility level. An aria hinged on the metaphor of a serpent? Bring on fast-curling, encircling strings.”

Early music is the main field of interest for the Ensemble Matheus, founded in 1991 as Quatuor Matheus. Spinosi, conductor and violinist, stresses that the ensemble’s success has been determined by, among other factors, the use of replicas of Baroque instruments, which – as he says – “have an unbelievable sound and allow us to create a special atmosphere at our concerts”. The soloists also help to create this special mood. The parts of Licori and her missing betrothed have been entrusted to the marvellous sopranos, Roberta Invernizzi and Maria Grazia Schiavo, who, thanks to the Opera Rara cycle and the Misteria Paschalia Festival, often appear in Kraków. The role of the pirate Oralto is played by Christian Senn, highly rated for his high baritone. We are also set to encounter new faces: the young American Jennifer Holloway with her resonant mezzosoprano, the tenor Tilman Lichdi, a specialist in the Baroque repertory (he has a particular liking for Bach’s Passions and oratorios), and David DQ Lee, a versatile countertenor who sings early and contemporary music and jazz, and recently started collaborating with the new age Norwegian group, Secret Garden.

Vivaldi operas are no novelty in Kraków – at the Misteria Paschalia Festival in 2008, we were able to hear Bajazet, and at the inauguration of the Opera Rara cycle – Ercole sul Termodonte. Both were reconstructed by Fabio Biondi, who also conducted their performances. La fida ninfa serves as the latest proof that the Venetian composer’s operas should reclaim their deserved place on theatre stages and concert halls. Especially when we get to see such an excellent performance. The critic cited earlier was of the same opinion, writing in “The Times”: “La fida ninfa is a spectacular baroque rediscovery, and resistance is pointless.”

(Barbara Skowrońska, „Karnet” monthly)