Vivaldi’s Arsilda in Bratislava

The première in Bratislava of the first staging in modern times of Vivaldi’s seventh work for theatre, Arsilda, Regina di Ponto, was momentous. The score by itself justifies the piece’s resuscitation. Although it has the conventional features of baroque opera, a complex plot involving twins, disguises, mistaken identity and hunting and dungeon scenes, it contains music which is never dull, often brilliant and daring, with crunching harmonies, unusual intervals and sometimes languorous phrasing in the vocal line. In its presentation, shared with theatres in Caen and Luxemburg, it was masterfully conducted by Vaclav Luks at the head of the period group Collegium 1704.

The team of young singers, soprano Lenka Máčiková, mezzos Olivia Vermeulen and Lucile Richardot, counter tenor Kangmin Justin Kim, tenor Fernando Guimaraes and bass baritone Lisandro Abadie, all baroque specialists, excelled vocally and dramatically. But it was the stunning production by David Radok which stole the show. Cutting through the clichés of a convoluted plot and banalities of a libretto which seeks to affirm the power of love over betrayal and misfortune, he turned the opera into a drama of human relationships in which the experience of desire and its consequences leads not to fulfilment but a better of understanding of the emotional self.

Visually this was achieved by the characters evolving from the conventions of an 18th century masque in the first half to a contemporary denouement after the interval. In the beginning, encounters and intrigue are played out in courtly gestures, stylised movements and dance (choreographer Andrea Miltnerová). Then as relationships become more intense with frustration, jealousy and bitterness, the costumes are gradually removed, the physical movements become more realistic and the grace and elegance of the period setting disappear. We are left with the participants roaming around a stage strewn with the remnants of the courtly masque as they try to come to terms with themselves and what they have experienced. A brilliant conception which reminded me more than once of an analogous emotional journey with Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.