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Concert reviews

Vivaldi: La Senna festeggiante, serenate a 3 (RV 693)
Mary Nelson (L'Età dell'Oro), soprano; Hillary Summers (La Virtù), mezzosoprano; Angus Smith, tenor; Neal Davies (La Senna), bass; The King's Consort/Robert King

concert: Utrecht, Oct 17, 2000

Vivaldi's Serenate La Senna Festeggiante isn't a piece which is often performed. There has been a recording with the Cappella Coloniensis, but at the moment there is no recording in the catalogue. That is surprising, since it contains great arias. In fact, it is full of them, as I concluded during a performance by the King's Consort in Utrecht.
This work is a typical occasional work. It was probably written in 1726 for the name-day of the French king Louis XV. There is hardly a story in it - as usual in this kind of work - and that was probably the reason the programme book didn't contain a translation of the text. Apart from pleasing a VIP such compositions delivered the singers with an opportunity to show their virtuosity to the audience. That also means that a performance heavily depends on the quality of the singers. I think that is the reason the recording I mentioned was a disappointment.
Robert King did a lot better in the concert I attended. The "story" is extremely simple: two allegorical characters, L'Età dell'Oro (the Golden Era) and La Virtù (Virtue) are looking for true happiness. They find it at the banks of the Seine with the god of the river, La Senna. The soprano Mary Nelson (L'Età dell'Oro) was a new name to me, but I was quite impressed with her performance. She had a beautiful aria at the beginning of the first part, a virtuoso imitation of the nightingale: "Se qui pace tall'or vò cercando l'usignuol che sen vola cantando, ferma il volo e risponde anch'ei pace". Her performance was almost perfect. Later on she had another gem: "Al mio seno il pargoletto", an aria in a very quiet tempo, where both she and the orchestra impressed with beautiful phrasing and dynamic accents.
I had heard the contralto Hilary Summers before (in Handel's Messiah) and I liked her then - she is one of the very few female altos I can stand. She was very convincing in this work by Vivaldi as well. Her arias are less virtuoso, but very nice. The best was the last one: "Così nell'aurora", where the soloist is accompanied by muted strings, which creates a wonderful atmosphere of sunshine and summer warmth, something we know from the 'Summer' in the Four Seasons.
The bass part is the most brilliant and virtuoso of all three. Vivaldi expects a very flexible voice, but also a voice with a wide range. The first aria ("Qui nel profondo") describes the depth and the fast-flowing water of the Seine. The singer has to sing a lot of very deep notes and at a high speed. Neal Davies stood the test quite convincingly and did make me forget that I don't particularly like his voice. Another highlight was the aria "L'alta lor gloria immortale".
The soloists did blend very well in the ensembles (at the start of the piece and at the end of both the first and the second part).
The orchestration of this work is pretty conventional: no "fancy" instruments like the mandolin or the 'salmoè' or whatever. Just strings with basso continuo, with two recorders and two oboes (at some passages the two oboists played additional recorders as well). But even with these limited means Vivaldi proved again to be a master in orchestration. Very few composers have his ability to create an atmosphere with an orchestra. The King's Consort realised the orchestral parts much better than I expected. It isn't as colourful as the best Italian baroque orchestras, but it certainly came a long way.

Of course, not everything was perfect. First of all I believe that an Italian orchestra and Italian singers would make more of this piece. I also think that the soloists could have used more ornamentation than they did. I am sure that the singers Vivaldi had at his disposal will have gone further in showing off their qualities. Something I didn't like was the performance of the recitatives. It is the familiar story: I can't understand why singers don't take the rhythmic freedom the composers of the baroque expected.
But on the whole it was a very enjoyable evening. Hopefully this work will be recorded by Robert King with this cast in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2000)

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