The King's Consort continue their acclaimed recording series of Vivaldi with two sparkling serenatas written in 1725 and 1726 for the French Ambassador, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy. The Ambassador celebrated every year the feast of St Louis on 25 August, thereby honouring not only the patron saint of his country, St Louis, but also its monarch.
La Senna Festeggiante is recorded complete for the first time, with the missing section newly restored by leading scholar Carlo Vitali and conductor Robert King. (A recent CD version misses out a major portion of music and text before the finale!) The scoring is for three principal voices, with the brilliant soprano Carolyn Sampson as L'Eta dell' Oro, alto Hilary Summers as La Virtù and the fine young bass Andrew Foster-Williams as La Senna. The orchestration is vivid, backed by a continuo section full of rhythm and life: Robert King's new edition also makes full use of the colourful wind section that Vivaldi adds to his score.
The Wedding Serenata Gloria e Imeneo, recorded here for the first time, was written to commemorate the marriage of Louis XV and the Polish princess Maria Leszczynska and was performed in Venice in September 1725 in a loggia at the end of the Ambassador's garden. The two characters are Imeneo (Hymen, the god of marriage) and La Gloria (Glory, the attribute of the French monarch), here taken by the brilliant young Norwegian mezzo-soprano Tuva Semmingsen and alto Hilary Summers.
The works were recorded after a huge series of live performances across Europe. The CD recording maintains the same sense of live performance, incorporating long takes, a strong sense of staging and the use of varied audio perspective.
In 1789 the traveller and historian Charles Burney wrote, in his General History of Music:
Cantatas of considerable length, accompanied by a numerous band, are usually performed in Italy on great occasions of festivity: as the reconciliation of princes after long disunion, or the arrival of great personages in the capital of a state. Thus when Pope Ganganelli [Clement XIV] and the King of Portugal were reconciled, in 1770, and soon after, when the present Emperor arrived in Venice, on his first visiting Italy, cantatas were sung at Rome and Venice equal in length to an opera. But these differ essentially from what is usually meant by a cantata or monologue for a single voice, consisting of short recitatives, and two or three airs at most; as they are occasional poems in which several singers are employed; but though in dialogue, they are performed, like oratorios, without change of scene, or action.
Although Burney does not use the word here, the most commonly employed description of this dramatic genre over the preceding hundred years was ‘serenata’. Contrary to what one sometimes reads in reference works (even Italian ones), the relationship of ‘serenata’ to ‘sera’ (evening) is fortuitous. The real derivation is from the Italian word ‘sereno’ (cognate with English ‘serene’), which refers to a clear sky, especially at night. A serenata is thus conceived – in spirit, if not always in reality – as a piece performed by artificial light under open skies.
The lover’s serenade, as recalled by Mozart in Don Giovanni, and the purely instrumental serenade, as in the same composer’s Serenata notturna, share a title but not a generic identity with the dramatic cantata of the same name. Burney exaggerates when he claims that serenatas were as long as operas. Their length varies (I have found examples with as many as 25 closed numbers and as few as one), but even at their longest, they are equivalent to only about two acts of a three-act Baroque opera. In reality, they are closer in scale and structure to contemporary Italian oratorios, often being divided into two parts. Whereas the interval was commonly used in oratorios for a sermon, it became in serenatas the cue for the serving of lavish refreshments to the invited guests. Normally, serenatas were performed without action, costume or scenery (although a static scenic backdrop was sometimes employed), and the two or more singers read from their parts.
One interesting consequence of not requiring the singers to act and therefore memorise their parts was that the music that they were given, especially in the recitatives, could be made more elaborate and individual. Because of the orchestral accompaniment, the general style of serenatas never departed far from that of contemporary opera, but the dialoguing structure of the plot was unfavourable towards the stratification of roles (into first man, first lady, second man, second lady, etc.) and to the unequal distribution of arias that occurred in consequence. In fact, arias in serenatas usually form themselves into ‘rounds’, in which each singer in turn has an aria, though rarely in a fixed order. The result is a genre that is clearly distinct from both the opera and the solo cantata, even if it borrows elements from each.
Burney mentions some kinds of occasion that called forth serenatas. Even more common than the ones he cites were birthdays, name-days, weddings and births. Etiquette required the ‘sponsor’ of a serenata – the person who commissioned it from the poet and composer, provided the venue, engaged the musicians and invited the audience – to be different from the ‘recipient’ – the person honoured either directly or obliquely in its lines. But the two were usually connected by kinship, friendship or political ties. Some events (especially birthdays and name-days) were foreseeable well in advance and tolerated a relaxed tempo of preparation. Others (for example, births, visits and military victories) were not, a fact that often forced the participants to act with extreme urgency. Small wonder, then, that many librettists and composers were tempted to recycle existing material in their anxiety to complete on time. For greater speed, sponsors of serenatas usually preferred to call on local talent, which in some cases (especially in provincial centres) created rare opportunities for minor and amateur artists.
The first serenatas emerged around the beginning of the 1660s; the earliest example from Venice dates from 1665. The lagoon city was an ideal setting for such compositions since it enabled the seating area for the audience to be contrasted inventively with that of the musicians. Sometimes the latter performed on dry land and were viewed from boats or pontoons, sometimes the reverse. However, the relative lack of sufficiently quiet large open spaces in Venice removed the temptation to use ostentatiously large performing forces, as frequently happened in Rome and elsewhere. Moreover, Venice, being a republic, lacked a court and most of the extravagant appurtenances of courtly life. The lacuna was filled, to some extent, by the resident ambassadors of foreign powers. Cut off from the Venetian nobility by an ancient law of the Republic that forbade fraternisation (since the patriciate formed en bloc the governing class, this rule permitted no exceptions), the diplomatic corps cultivated on a miniature scale the lifestyle that they knew from home but did not find locally. They set up, in effect, a ‘parallel’ society that was able to recruit to its service the best artists and artisans that Venice could offer but could not interact socially with the city’s political elite except, sometimes, under cover of masking.
Vivaldi was inducted early into the world of the serenata. His first such composition, written in 1708 as an encomium for a Venetian official in Rovigo who had concluded his term of office, predates his earliest opera by five years. Altogether, we know of eight serenatas from his pen, and this probably understates their true number. Oddly, three of them survive in score and three more as published librettos that name Vivaldi as the composer – but in no cases do we possess both the music and the libretto.
The two works in the present recording belong to a group of at least three serenatas with a French connection that the composer wrote in the 1720s. In 1723, after a fourteen-year break in diplomatic relations, the French monarchy posted to Venice a new ambassador, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy. Languet managed to reoccupy the traditional Palais de France, situated on the Fondamenta della Madonna dell’Orto and facing out across the lagoon to the mainland. (Today, this building is the Grand Hotel ‘Palazzo dei Dogi’.) As a matter of course, he celebrated there every year the feast of St Louis on 25 August, thereby honouring not only the patron saint of his country but also its monarch.
Vivaldi may have made contact with Languet earlier, but the first commission of which we have certain knowledge is that for the wedding serenata, RV687, written to commemorate the nuptials of Louis XV and the Polish princess Maria Leszczyska and performed in the evening of 12 September 1725 in a loggia (still standing) at the end of the ambassador’s garden. At very short notice, Languet organised a magnificent festa, which was minutely reported not only in a handwritten account in Italian for circulation among the ambassador’s friends (the British Library in London possesses a copy of this relazione interleaved in the correspondence of the Roman cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualtieri) but also in the Mercure de France for October 1725, where we read: ‘After the ball there was a serenata, whose words, suited to the subject [of the festivities], were much praised, and the music was by Signor Vivaldi, who is the best composer in Venice’.
Vivaldi’s very hastily written autograph score of the serenata today lacks the fascicle containing the introductory sinfonia and, with it, the title of the serenata. As in operas, sinfonias were very necessary accessories for serenatas, since in addition to providing some very welcome purely instrumental music, they acted as ‘noise-killers’, alerting the audience to the start of the performance. For the present recording, a rarely heard sinfonia in C major, RV116, in the usual three movements has been selected. The choice lay, effectively, between C major and B flat major, since minor-key sinfonias are very rare, and Vivaldi always avoids making the first chord of the opening recitative (here, F major) the same as the tonic chord of the preceding sinfonia.
The two characters in this serenata are Imeneo (Hymen, the god of marriage) and La Gloria (Glory, the attribute of the French monarch). There is really no ‘plot’: the two characters simply vie with one another in heaping enconiums on the young couple. La Gloria leads off by descending to earth and inviting Louis to welcome his Polish bride in a pompous aria (‘Alle amene franche arene’) thematically related to one in Vivaldi’s recent opera Giustino (1724) and to the first movement of his concerto for two horns RV538. Imeneo then invites the princess to share the marriage bed and reminds her of the duties of a good wife in a strangely restless aria in C minor (‘Tenero fanciulletto’). The wedding congratulations continue in strict rotation until the two cheerleaders join forces in a lively duet, ‘Vedrò sempre la pace’. Two further arias (prepared, as always, by recitatives) arrive, and we at last reach the climax of the serenata: the final recitative. By tradition, this is the point at which the joyful occasion is summed up – the anonymous poet even manages to squeeze in a tribute to Languet himself for hosting the festa – and its ‘message’ is delivered in definitive form. This celebration, sings La Gloria, will remain indelibly etched in human memory. It remains only for the couple to sing a final duet, ‘In braccio de’ contenti’, which is another borrowing from Giustino.
If the wedding serenata has a certain ‘off the peg’ quality, the same can certainly not be said of La Senna festeggiante, RV693, which evidence of various kinds (bibliographical, philological, textual) situates in the second half of the following year. It was probably intended as a homage to the king to be delivered on the feast of St Louis. Frustratingly, the potentially very informative middle portion of the long final recitative has been lost (a central bifolio has slipped out of its gathering). (For the present performance Carlo Vitali has devised extra text, and Robert King extra music, to plug this gap. The only practical alternative would have been to suppress the recitative entirely, sacrificing the surviving music at either end.) A degree of caution is needed, therefore, in proposing the date, place and purpose of the serenata.
One clue to the circumstances surrounding La Senna festeggiante is the unusually heavy concentration in it of French (or supposedly French) stylistic traits, including a surprisingly high incidence of accompanied recitative employing strings in addition to continuo. This coincides with a visit to Venice, between July and December 1726, of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (famed as a patron of Corelli and Handel), who was Protector of the Affairs of France at the Vatican. A Venetian patrician, Ottoboni had broken the Republic’s law and incurred its wrath by accepting this post from his great-uncle, the Pope, in 1709, thereby triggering the rupture in diplomatic relations with France mentioned earlier. Not until 1726 was the breach healed sufficiently for him to return to his native city. For obvious reasons, Languet acted as his main host during the visit. By ‘gallicising’ his style, Vivaldi seems to be courting Ottoboni rather than Languet, whom he had not similarly flattered in the earlier wedding serenata. Indeed, the cardinal had acted as a patron to Vivaldi on his visits to Rome in the early 1720s and was the recipient of a large number of his sonatas and concertos. It is even possible that La Senna festeggiante was not actually performed in Venice in 1726 but was presented to Ottoboni during his visit in the hope, perhaps vain, that he would make future use of it in Rome.
The librettist for La Senna festeggiante, identified on the title-page of the score in the hand of its copyist, the composer’s elderly father Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, was Domenico Lalli (1679-1741). From the second to the fourth decade of the eighteenth century Lalli was a dominant force on the Venetian operatic scene, constantly in demand as a librettist and sometimes also as a manager. Like Vivaldi, he was an ‘operator’ who lived by his wits. His libretti are workmanlike rather than polished, and – again like Vivaldi – he was a master of adaptation and recycling. In 1730 he produced for the Bavarian court a similarly titled serenata text, L’Isara festeggiante (named after the river flowing past Munich), and although this second libretto contains no direct borrowings from La Senna festeggiante, its indebtedness surfaces everywhere in phrases and words.
The present serenata has three allegorical characters: L’Età dell’Oro (The Golden Age), La Virtù (Virtue) and La Senna (The Seine). Its very rudimentary plot, following a very common structural plan in serenatas, is conceived as a quest: the characters are introduced little by little to the identity and the flatteringly drawn personal traits of the recipient of the homage. In Part I, following a preliminary celebration by the nymphs of the Seine, first L’Età dell’Oro and then La Virtù arrive at the river’s banks, lamenting the sorry state of the world. La Senna offers them perpetual hospitality, and the three exchange compliments at length before the nymphs return to close the section – but not until the river god has drawn his visitors’ attention towards a flock of white swans that tell of even greater things. In Part II the banner of the French king is spotted, and the three make their way towards the royal palace, presumably Versailles. They sing his praises, comment on his regal appearance and offer him wishes for a glorious future.
Vivaldi chose (or had chosen for him) a soprano voice for L’Età dell’Oro and an alto voice for La Virtù. Either or both parts may originally have been intended for a castrato. La Senna is written for a bass voice of exceptional range and agility. Such voices are rare in Venetian operatic music of the period, and one suspects that the designated singer was a member of Ottoboni’s entourage brought from Rome. Besides the usual strings and continuo instruments, Vivaldi includes in the orchestra a pair of oboes and a pair of recorders, perhaps in the knowledge of the prominence of these wind instruments in the cardinal’s own orchestra. (The present performance extends the use of wind instruments to double or replace the strings in some movements where they are not explicitly prescribed in the composer’s score. The effect is to make the instrumental colour more vivid, and in some instances to illustrate the words.)
The opening number is a three-movement Sinfonia, the outer movements of which come from a string concerto, RV117, while the central movement is a remake of its counterpart in the opera Giustino (1724). Significantly, the first movement of the concerto version is headed ‘alla francese’, a reference to its fierce tiratas (upward sweeps of quick notes) and jagged dotted rhythms. The first closed vocal number is a lively chorus (headed ‘coro’) – that is to say, an ensemble for the three singers, who momentarily step outside their normal dramatic roles and invite the nymphs to disport themselves. There follows an aria for L’Età dell’Oro, ‘Se qui pace talor vo cercando’, in which lovers of Vivaldi’s concertos will spot familiar ‘birdsong’ effects and also the use of a chromatic motive connoting sleep, when the birds fall silent. The opening aria for La Virtù, ‘In quest’onde che feconde’, is delicately scored for a concertino of two recorders and violin bass that alternates with the full string band. To conclude the first ‘round’ of arias, we have La Senna’s flamboyant ‘Qui nel profondo’, styled as an aria all’unisono in the manner of ‘The people that walked in darkness’ from Handel’s Messiah.
The two visitors continue with a dance-like duet, ‘Godrem fra noi la pace’, adapted from a similar movement in the Wedding Serenata. La Virtù adds a racy aria, ‘Vaga perla benché sia’, which is dominated by Vivaldi’s favourite rocking rhythm of two quavers enclosing a crotchet. The response from L’Età dell’Oro is ‘Al mio seno il pargoletto’, a charmingly wistful aria in minuet rhythm employing several French turns of phrase; Vivaldi borrowed its music from his much earlier opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto (1716). The next number is a lilting duet, ‘Qui per darci amabil pace’, that is not only French in rhythm (Vivaldi heads it ‘Minuet’) but also French in form, being cast as a rondeau in which the episode (couplet), sung by La Virtù, is merely a transposed version of the refrain. La Senna re-imposes his presence with a stirring aria, ‘L’alta lor gloria immortale’, and the first part concludes with another ensemble in Arcadian vein, ‘Di queste selve’; Lalli adapted its text from a chorus that he had written for an old serenata, Calisto in orsa (1714).
The second part opens with another kind of overture, this time expressly in the French style (Vivaldi heads it ‘Ouvertur’). The slow outer sections, with their fiercely dotted rhythms, are passably good imitations of the native manner, but the brisk fugal central section is a little odd. For one thing, its initial set of entries builds up from the bottom and begins on a tonic chord, whereas the genuine article would have worked downwards from the first violins and started on a dominant chord. In fact, Vivaldi took nearly all the material of this section from the end of a four-part madrigal by his Venetian contemporary Antonio Lotti, cunningly disguising the borrowing by changing the metre from 6/4 to 3/8 and shuffling the parts around. A short gavotte-like movement concludes the overture.
The first aria is La Senna’s ‘Pietà, dolcezza’. This very slow aria in triple time displays its ‘Frenchness’ in an unusual way by employing minim, rather than crotchet, beats. The result is a forest of ‘white’ notes (as found in many French scores of the period), and there may additionally be an allusion, in the spirit of ‘eye music’, to the whiteness of the swans or to the noble pallor of the French monarch’s face. ‘Stelle con vostra pace’, sung by La Virtù, is dominated by a line for unison violins that contains many percussive chords; Vivaldi based this movement, too, on an aria from Arsilda. The following duet, ‘Io qui provo sì caro diletto’, is a borrowing from Giustino, possibly via the Wedding Serenata. L’Età dell’Oro’s minor-key aria ‘Giace languente’ must have proved a success, since Vivaldi soon used it again for his new opera Dorilla in Tempe, which opened on 9 November 1726. La Virtù’s ‘Così sol nell’aurora’, airily pastoral in tone, is set to a text adapted by Lalli from the anonymous libretto of Apollo in Tempe, a serenata written in honour of the electoral prince of Saxony, later Friedrich August II, on the occasion of his visit to Venice in 1712. Vivaldi’s music for this aria is based on a favourite theme encountered as early as the opera Orlando finto pazzo (1714) but best known from the third movement of his flute concerto RV434. L’Età dell’Oro follows with yet another elegant minuet-aria, ‘Non fu mai più vista in soglio’.
Lalli soon afterwards borrowed the text of the final ensemble, ‘Il destino, la sorte e il fato’, for another serenata, La Fenice, with which Ottoboni, on 9 November 1726, gave thanks to the Venetian nobility for welcoming him back from exile. For his part, Vivaldi delved into his old operas to find a choral chaconne that would crown his homage to the French king and nation. He obtained one in La verità in cimento (1720) – or perhaps in Giustino, where the same movement had already been recycled. The problem is that the chaconne is set for four voices, whereas only three sing in the serenata. Vivaldi cut the Gordian knot with typical directness, writing next to the tenor part: ‘Sarebbe molto bene far cantare questo tenore ma però non è necessario’ (‘It would be very nice to have this tenor sung, but this is not obligatory [since the part is doubled by viola]’).
An emphasis on identifying borrowings can make it appear as if La Senna festeggiante is just another incoherent pasticcio. This would be unfair: the score has been put together with immense care and artistry, and all the borrowed portions justify themselves more than adequately in their new context. Indeed, this serenata is Vivaldi’s grandest and best secular vocal work, gaining a lot from its not quite convincing, but nevertheless highly attractive, apings of le style français. Its still obscure origins may tantalise musicologists, but for music-lovers it holds a wealth of memorable moments, powerful and tender alike.
Michael Talbot © 2002