Antonio Vivaldi likely never visited Spoleto, Italy in his lifetime, and he most certainly never visited Charleston, South Carolina, but he felt ever-present at the festival this year in charming Charleston. Il Farnace was a huge success for the Spoleto Festival USA 2017. We enjoyed enthusiastic audiences at all six of our performances and a wonderful stay in the charming and inspiring town of Charleston, SC. A fantastic team of singers, designers, directors, and musicians created a rich baroque musical experience for attendees, which many expressed was a highlight for them during their festival experience this year.
PUTTING ON POMPEO
It is hard not to love playing a character like Pompeo. The name says it all: his strength, forthright, hard-lined, yet benevolent, honorable, and virtue-driven nature. His more militaristic side is so opposite of me that it makes it a great challenge to play him, but admittedly swooping around the stage in a commanding cashmere coat, telling people of the glory of Rome, and teaching lessons of morality and throwing your weight is an addictive behavior to be sure. Pompeo has however a very sensible and compassionate side as well, and it is that part of him I could easily tap into. I also enjoyed the sharp contrast between playing Pompeo and the role I had spent the previous month creating in Omaha, Nebraska: the Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s Flight with Opera Omaha. These two characters are pretty much diametrically opposed in every sense. (To read about my experience on Flight, click here.)
Spending over a month at Spoleto Festival USA exploring the musical world of Antonio Vivaldi, I now feel a deeper appreciation for his music. This was the first time I had ever sung an opera by Vivaldi. Prior to singing his music, I had trouble understanding why people were drawn to his vocal music outside of a few famous pieces (such as the stellar aria from Il Farnace “Gelido in ogni vena”). I felt there was less complexity perhaps in the melodic writing and a sort of simplicity to the harmony. It just didn’t pique my interest and arouse my ears in quite the same way as Händel, even though I could appreciate his music.
Vivaldi’s arias do require an inventiveness to put them across: this is true. We were lucky to be inspired by Maestro David Peter Bates. He created a wonderfully meticulous score just for our production, replete with his own ornamentation. His musical ideas and zest and flair for this high baroque style helped us imbue this music with a richness that it so deserves. I would soon discover it is indeed all in how you perform his music. The key is to find those subtleties embedded in the music, emphasize the dramatic nuances of the rhythm and melodic line, be committed to the more explosive moments, and embrace the broad strokes of Vivaldi’s writing. There is a freshness and incisiveness in his music that is hard to describe. Even though he may just be writing a series of descending scales that look overly simple on the page, when done with shade and shape, and given an honest and emotional impulse behind them, they become electrifying for the singer and audience alike. It is a gorgeous repertoire that deserves more performances.
Another interesting discovery for me was in the recitative notation in Vivaldi. I find his notation here far more specific than I have encountered in the music of composers such as Händel, for example. We quickly realized as we crafted the music that much of Vivaldi’s specificity of rhythm in the recitative was intentional, whereas, in some other composers (like Händel for instance), we may decide he was less specific and treat it more as a blueprint. You often see just a string of eighth notes that doesn’t necessarily show the stress of the word or important word in the sentence. In this case, we’d obviously need to coax the language out of the melodic contour and rhythms of such a recitative. Assuredly there was an expectation that native-Italian singers would have adjusted the language in the recitative accordingly, in order to get the language flowing. I find, however, with Vivaldi much of that is already written on the page and needs little to no coaxing, even though we may be tempted to do so. I would imagine we should perhaps be less quick to dismiss the notation in the recitatives of composers like Vivaldi, and treat them more like the recitatives of the 17th century masters, as we would do with Cavalli and Monteverdi.
It was wonderful to create our version of this score with such a stellar, willing, and talented team. I do so hope to have the chance soon to explore more of Vivaldi’s works and to work with all these amazing artists. Charleston and the Spoleto Festival is sure to be on my list of future travel destinations; whether to sing or just bask in the richness of its history, delectable food, and bounty of artistic treasures.
To hear more about the production and see promotional and photographic materials, visit the Il Farnace production page.