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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Vivaldi: Giustino, Acts One and Two

12/03/2017 1:00 pm
12/03/2017 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

We commonly think of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) as a violin virtuoso who wrote hundreds of concertos for the violin and other instruments. He’s famous for “The Four Seasons” concertos in particular. Yet for much of his career as a composer Vivaldi wrote opera. In fact, he was one of the single most prolific composers of Italian opera seria in the history of music. (The master once boasted that he wrote at least ninety-four of them!) There are perhaps two dozen Vivaldi operas that survive musically complete or almost complete, another couple of dozen or so of which certain portions are extant, plus fragments of a couple of dozen more. In addition, we know that he composed other operas for which the scores have gone entirely missing.

The story of Antonio Vivaldi’s opera Giustino (1724) is very nearly the same as Handel’s Giustino (1737), a recording of which was aired on this program on Sunday, April 14, 1996. The story is set in the Byzantine empire, the Eastern or Greek half of the former Roman empire. Giustino is a humble ploughboy who has an intimation of a glorious fate that awaits him. He follows a path from rags to riches. He wins fame as well through a series of heroic exploits, among them killing a bear and thereby saving a noble lady in distress. He saves her a second time from being devoured by a sea monster.

Vivaldi recycled an awful lot of his music. One of the familiar tunes from “The Four Seasons” turns up in Giustino, which is indeed a complete work. Vivaldi’s autograph manuscript is preserved in the Italian National Library in Turin. It gives many indications of revisions, including music Vivaldi might have wanted to cut. All of that music, however, was retained in the modern critical edition of the score prepared by Estevan Velardi, who conducted an excellent studio recording of Giustino in 2001 for the Italian Bongiovanni record label. Velardi led the Alessandro Stradella Consort of period instrumentalists and a cast of nine singers trained in Baroque singing practice.

Over the years I have broadcast as many recordings of Vivaldi’s operas as I came across, especially the series of recordings of them put out by the French Naïve label earlier in the twenty-first century in Naïve’s “Vivaldi Edition.” Decca’s Giustino dates from the same period. It’s a wonderful recorded interpretation, with various charming niceties of instrumental backing for the excellent vocalists. The one problem with the Decca Giustino is the opera’s playing time on four compact discs. Giustino is of the length of any of Wagner’s longest music dramas. To accommodate the entire baroque opera seria I’m forced to broadcast only the first three of the four CDs this Sunday. Act Three on disc number four will have to wait until next Sunday.