196. Farnace (Vivaldi)

  • Dramma per musica in three acts
  • Composer: Antonio Vivaldi
  • Libretto: Antonio Maria Lucchini
  • First performed: Teatro Sant’Angelo, Venice, 1727; revised, 1738

FARNACE, King of PontusContralto (en travesti)Maria Maddalena Pieri
TAMIRI, Farnace’s wifeContraltoAnna Maddalena Giraud, “la Girò”
BERENICE, Tamiri’s motherContraltoAngela Capuano Romana, “la Capuanina”
POMPEO, victorious Roman soldierTenorLorenzo Moretti
SELINDA, Farnace’s sisterContraltoLucrezia Baldini
GILADE, Berenice’s captainSoprano castratoFilippo Finazzi
AQUILIO, Roman soldierContralto castratoDomenico Giuseppe Galletti

SETTING: Heraclea, the capital of the kings of Pontus

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Our first post in four months! Put it down to 2020.

War sets mother against daughter and father against son in Vivaldi’s opera of vanquished kings, battles, tombs, and vengeance. The work is Shakespearean, even Euripidean, in its its penetrating depiction of grief and loss juxtaposed with comedy; its noble emotions (love and virtue) vying with revenge; and its strong female characters.

The historical Pharnaces II (c. 97–47 BC) was king of Pontus, on the shores of the Black Sea, and son of that same Mithridates who features in one of Mozart’s early operas. In the civil wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey, he supported neither, but invaded neighbouring territories. Caesar swiftly defeated him, uttering the famous words: Veni, vidi, vici.

Lucchini’s libretto is only loosely inspired by fact. The opera begins with Farnace already defeated – by Pompey. Fearing that his family will become Roman slaves, Farnace orders his wife to plunge his sword into the heart of their son, then into her own. Tamiri, filled with horror, takes the sword, but cannot bring herself to kill her child; instead, she hides him in the royal mausoleum. Tamiri’s mother Berenice also proves an implacable enemy, demanding her grandson’s life in revenge for her own husband’s death, killed by Farnace’s father. Berenice and the Romans relent, and Farnace is restored to his throne. This change of heart seems rather unconvincingly abrupt to modern audiences, but Baroque opera demanded a happy ending (with rare exceptions like Catone in Utica or Attilio Regolo); opera should edify as well as entertain. Great souls are not bowed by fate, Pompeo sings at the end of Act I, but are strong because they trust in virtue.

Although the opera is named after the unfortunate king, the opera’s sympathies are with the women and children affected by war. At the heart of the work are Tamiri and Berenice, wife and widow of kings, one unable to kill, the other disowning her daughter and pursuing her grandson. Both have their antecedents in the Classics. When Tamiri imagines herself and her child destitute after Farnace’s death, “the lowest slaves, spinning the wool and kissing the hem of Roman garments”, we are reminded of Andromache’s lament for the dead Hector in Book 22 of The Iliad, grieving that her son Astyanax is now an orphan without a protector. The vengeful widow Berenice is a version of Hecuba, Priam’s queen, who blinded King Polymestor of Thrace, the murderer of her son. Here, Berenice wants the child destroyed; Farnace’s father Mitridate killed her husband and her son, and Farnace married Tamiri against her wishes. Relief is provided by Farnace’s sister Selinda, who uses feminine wiles (“alluring features and flashing eyes”) to make Roman and Cappadocian soldiers fall in love with her.

Vivaldi was not the first person to set Lucchini’s libretto; that honour belongs to Vinci (composer of Artaserse and Catone in Utica), with a production in Rome in 1724. Vivaldi’s version appeared three years later, for Venice’s 1727 Carnival season, starring his mistress Anna Giraud as Tamiri. “The music… whether sublime or tender, is very varied,” the Abbé Conti wrote. Vivaldi’s work was a success: it was revived at the same theatre in autumn, then taken to Livorno (1729), Prague (1730), Mantua (Carnival 1732), and Treviso (Carnival 1737), Vivaldi revising it each time.

Vivaldi substantially reworked his opera for Ferrara in 1739; eight of the 16 arias are new, and the other eight are radical revisions. This new version was never performed until Diego Fasolis’s recording of 2010. The Ferrara manuscript was incomplete; it contained only the first two acts, so Fasolis and musicologist Frédéric Delaméa adapted the Pavia version to the cast’s vocal ranges. Delaméa calls the Ferrara version “a highly polished illustration of [Vivaldi’s] mature operatic writing”, “both musically rich and varied and dramatically powerful and coherent”, featuring “an extremely refined style of writing” and “an abundance of unforgettable melodies”.

Vivaldi’s music is dynamic, bouncy, full of vigorous, unconventional rhythms, arresting harmonies, and brilliant coloratura. The most famous piece in the work is Farnace’s ‘Gelido in ogni veno’ (Act II), lamenting the apparent death of his son; this bleak, inexorable, slow aria is one of the great tragic scenes in 18th century opera. Also notable are his bravura arias ‘Ricordati che sei’ (Act I) and ‘Gemo in un punto è fremo’ (Act II).

Tamiri has two of the most moving, beautiful arias in the score: ‘Dividete, o giusti dei’ (Act II) and ‘Forse, o caro, in questi accenti’ (Act III). Berenice has a superb vengeance aria in each act: ‘Da quel ferro ch’ha svenato’ (Act I); ‘Amorosa e men irata’ (Act II); ‘Non trova mai riposo’ (Act III). Her ‘Al tribunal d’amore’ (Act II) is also splendid. The feisty, clever Selinda anticipates Rossini’s feminist heroines; she celebrates her charms in the exquisite ‘Al vezzeggiar d’un volto’ (Act I), while ‘Ti vantasti mio guerriero’ (Act III) is extroverted. The secondary characters have a memorable aria: Aquilio’s ‘Alle minacce di fiera belva’, using hunting as a metaphor for the pursuit of love; Gilade’s nightingale aria ‘Quell’usignolo che innamorato’; and Pompeo’s majestic ‘Roma invitta ma clemente’. Act II ends with a charming duet ‘Io sento nel petto’, and Act III with a striking quartet ‘Io crudel!’.


Listen to: Max Emmanuel Cencic (Farnace), Ruxandra Donose (Tamiri), Mary Ellen Nesi (Berenice), Ann Hallenberg (Selinda), Karina Gauvin (Gilade), Daniel Behle (Pompeo), and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Aquilio), with the Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano, and I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis. Lugano, 2010. Erato, 2011.

Watch: Max Emmanuel Cencic (Farnace), Ruxandra Donose (Tamiri), Mary Ellen Nesi (Berenice), Carol Garcia (Selinda), Vivica Genaux (Gilade), Juan Sancho (Pompeo), and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Aquilio), with George Petrou conducting Concerto Köln, Strasbourg, 2012.


Essays accompanying Erato CD:

  • Frédéric Delaméa, “The Curse of Ferrara”
  • Frédéric Delaméa and Diego Fasolis, “The Third Act”

Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003

Michael Talbot, The Master Musicians : Vivaldi, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1978

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