Opera in 3 acts
Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
Libretto: Giovanni Palazzi
First performed: Teatro Sant’Angelo, Venice, Autumn 1720
The sultan Mahmoud’s wife Rustena and his mistress Damira each give birth on the same day. The concubine, with the sultan’s knowledge, swaps her baby with the queen’s; both women bring up the wrong child as their own. Thirty years later, the two half-brothers – the legitimate bastard Melindo and the rightful heir Zelim – fight for the throne and the love of the same woman, Rosane. And their father (who started the whole imbroglio) tries to set things straight. Truth, in Vivaldi’s opera, is on trial.
A Freudian interpretation is irresistible to a modern director; a recent Zürich production ended with tragedy for the dysfunctional family – murder and suicide, like an Arabian Nights Tennessee Williams.
Vivaldi’s opera, though, is a sharp little comedy, and one of his best operas. We don’t know much about its reception, although it seems to have been a success; copies of the overture and various arias were found in Italian, French, and German libraries.
Many of the finest pieces are in the first act: Rosane’s flighty “Solo quella”; Zelim’s lament “Tu m’offendi”, pure, delicate, and, when sung by Jaroussky, angelic; Melindo’s virtuosic rage aria “Là del Nilo”; Damira’s sly, wheedling “Se l’acquisto di quel soglio”, with its sudden descents into the lower range; the really lovely trio “Aure placide”; and the counter-tenor warhorse “Mi vuoi tradir”. The highlight of the second act is the quintet “Anima mia, mio ben”, a confusion ensemble that looks forward to Rossini. Act III contains Melindo’s “Crudele, se brami”, threatening his father; Rosane’s “Con cento, e cento baci”, delighted Zelim has let her marry Melindo; and Zelim’s renunciation aria “Sia conforto”.
The opera was apparently only performed in its original Venetian run before the twentieth century. It was resurrected in 2002, under the baton of Jean-Christophe Spinosi, with Gemma Bertagnolli (Rosane), Guillemette Laurens (Rustena), Sara Mingardo (Melindo), Nathalie Stutzmann (Damira), and a young Philippe Jaroussky (Zelim) [Opus 111 OP30365].
The work was warmly greeted; Gramophone called it “one of the most enjoyable among recent Baroque opera rarities”, while Kaminski (Mille et un opéras, 2003) praises “a richness of inspiration, a variety of forms and an orchestral imagination” rare in the early 18th century.
Finding a copy may be tricky; the CD seems to be out of print (only one copy on Ebay, for $50 US), while commercially available MP3s don’t come with a booklet.