Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
La Senna festeggiante (RV 693)
Gwendoline Blondeel (soprano), Lucile Richardot (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Scott (tenor), Luigi De Donato (bass)
Orchestra of the Opéra Royal/Diego Fasolis
rec. 2021, Opéra Royal, Versailles
Texts ans translations included
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS064 
Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most frequently-performed composers of the baroque era, and the catalogue of his works that are available on disc is large. However, there are still works that are not known very well and not often performed. One of them is La Senna festeggiante, one of Vivaldi’s contributions to the genre of the serenata. That genre was very popular in his time, and few composers never wrote any work of this kind. A serenata was mostly the fruit of a commission by someone from the higher echelons of society, to be performed at the occasion of a festive event, such as a birth or a wedding. The occasion could also be something of a political nature, such as a military victory or a peace treaty. This explains that such works were performed only once. However, composers may have used material from such works for later compositions. That is also the case with this particular work.
Unfortunately we don’t know for sure, when and for which occasion it has been written. Several options have been taken into consideration. Two of Vivaldi’s serenades were written for the French embassy in Venice, in 1724 and 1726, and it has been suggested that La Senna festeggiante was one if them. In 1723, the year Louis XV’s majority was declared by the French parliament, the French ambassador, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy, had made Vivaldi the embassy’s official composer. However, there are reasons to believe that the serenata was not specifically connected to an event related to the king, as Olivier Fourés argues in his liner-notes. One of them is that, whereas the two serenate that were performed in 1724 and 1726 were mentioned extensively in contemporary chronicles, there is no reference at all to this particular work.
There can be no doubt about the connection to France. The work is a tribute to the country and its king, and Vivaldi even went as far as including elements of the French style in his work, for instance by the use of dotted rhythms and the composition of more choruses, duets and accompanied recitatives than was common in his oeuvre. Interesting is also the participation of pairs of recorders and oboes, which mostly play colla parte with the strings, as was common in France. As his serenades for the French embassy were more conventional in style, this work may have been intended to be sent directly to Paris. Fourés also mentions that Vivaldi left open the way the tenor part in the choruses has to be performed. “[It] would be nice to have this tenor part sung, but well, it is not necessary”. Fourés concludes that this suggests that Vivaldi may have had no control over the performance context of the work.
However, there are arguments against the assumption that the work was to be performed in France. It includes a borrowing from Vivaldi’s colleague Antonio Lotti, which would have missed the mark in France. Moreover, Vivaldi has written a virtuosic bass part, which suggests that he knew who was going to sing it. One possibility could be Giovanni Francesco Benedetti, the only bass who worked with Vivaldi who had the range this part requires. For several reasons this is not very likely. Fourés comes up with the suggestion that the work may have been sent to Rome, where he had performed several of his operas during the carnival season 1724. Cardinal Ottoboni, who was a famous patron of the arts and also a supporter of French affairs in Rome, was on good terms with Vivaldi and may have been behind the serenade project. In the end, Fourés has to leave the matter open: it is simply impossible to know for sure what the reason for the composition may have been.
That leaves us with the music. As one may expect from a serenade, the libretto is not very theatrical. A happy event, which was the reason for the performance of such a work, did not require a very dramatic story, with unhappy love, jealousy and mistaken identities. The story of the piece is rather 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 serenade consists of two parts, each of which opens with a sinfonia in three sections. Each part comprises a sequence of recitatives, arias and duets. The sinfonia of the first part is followed by a chorus, and both parts also close with a chorus.
If one listens to this work, it is a bit of a mystery why it is not better known and not more frequently performed. The arias are of superb quality, and – as already mentioned – the bass part is technically demanding. And one should not forget the orchestral part, which is vintage Vivaldi. A good example is the aria of La Virtù in the second part: ‘Così sol nell’aurora’. The text – “The graceful flowers unfold their beauty only at that precise moment when the dawn is gilding the heavens” – is brilliantly illustrated by the strings, in typical Vivaldian fashion. One immediately recognizes the composer of pieces with a title, which are among his most popular works for a reason.
Both Gwendoline Blondeel and Lucile Richardot are perfectly cast in the roles of L’Età dell’Oro and La Virtù respectively. The former is in excellent form in the first aria, ‘Se qui pace’, the latter makes an excellent impression in ‘Giace languente’. Their duet ‘Io qui provo’ is one of the highlights of this performance. Luigi De Donato deals very well with the technical demands of his part. However, his singing is marred by an incessant vibrato. It is not that disturbing in the arias in fast tempo, and that is the majority. However, ‘Pietà, dolcezza’ is sung in a slow tempo, and here it damages the result. The orchestra delivers an excellent performance of the instrumental parts.
On balance, despite my critical comments on De Donato’s contributions, this is a very fine disc to have. If you have no recording of this work in your collection, this is a good choice.
On a technical note: the recitative which precedes the closing chorus is a bit of a mess, both in the physical and the digital booklet. In the former, the Italian text and the English translation have been mixed up. In the digital booklet, a large part of it is missing.
Johan van Veen
Previous review: Dave Billinge (May 2022)
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