Does Vivaldi have a distinct operatic fingerprint? From the opening chorus of Dorilla in Tempe, every single person in Wexford’s National Opera House could have identified the composer… because the Red Priest borrows from the opening strains of Spring from his ubiquitous Four Seasons! Premiered at the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice in November 1726, the score to Dorilla only survives in a pasticcio version, put on for a Venetian revival in 1734, which included eight arias by four other composers, including Johann Adolph Hasse.

Manuela Custer (Dorilla) and José Maria Lo Monaco (Elmiro) © Clive Barda
Manuela Custer (Dorilla) and José Maria Lo Monaco (Elmiro)
© Clive Barda

It was quite usual for singers to carry around favourite aria di baule (literally “suitcase arias”) with them on their travels, vocal showcases which they would interpolate into performances. I’m not sure if the singer taking the role of Elmiro – the lowly shepherd in love with Dorilla, the king’s daughter – had something against Vivaldi’s writing, but all four of his arias here are by other composers (three by Hasse, one by Leonardo Leo). Would Baroque nuts be able to spot the difference? Hasse’s writing is less florid than typical Vivaldi, but it would be a tough ask to pluck them from a vocal identity parade.

<i>Dorilla in Tempe</i> © Clive Barda
Dorilla in Tempe
© Clive Barda

Baroque nuts, along with Wagnerians, have probably developed stronger bladders than us mere mortals. When Act 3 doesn’t begin until 22:30, you know you’re in for the long haul. Some Baroque operas are longer, but fly past in the twinkling of an eye thanks to a tight dramatic arc, an arc which Antonio Maria Lucchini’s libretto for this melodramma eroico pastorale lacks. The action peaks early, at the end of Act 1 where Nomio – Apollo in disguise, also in love with Dorilla – saves the princess from a marauding monster called Python (here looking like a cobra made from lapis lazuli). The rest of the evening concerns Dorilla trying to dodge marriage to Nomio. It’s only when Elmiro is sentenced to death by the king that Apollo reveals his godly identity to save the day in a lieto fine (happy ending). A few cuts would hardly have been noticed.

Marco Bussi (Admeto) © Clive Barda
Marco Bussi (Admeto)
© Clive Barda

Wexford bought in Fabio Ceresa’s production from La Fenice, where it premiered at the Teatro Malibran (its second stage) earlier this year. In flamboyant period style, with eye-popping costumes, it looks a treat, the action taking place on a single set of a balustraded staircase festooned to depict the changing seasons. Conductor Andrea Marchiol picks up the seasonal references with further excerpts from The Four Seasons as brief entr’actes. Ceresa’s approach is distinctly tongue-in-cheek, which makes it odd that Nomio’s Act 3 aria “Fidi amanti al vostro amore”, when he warns the lovers that they face death, is accompanied by a blood-letting scene where a victim is hung by the legs and skinned. Such squeamish stage action sat very awkwardly amid the predominantly camp, florid style.

Veronique Valdés (Nomio–Apollo) © Clive Barda
Veronique Valdés (Nomio–Apollo)
© Clive Barda

Vocal performances were strong, with all the singers impressing. Apart from Marco Bussi’s bruising bass as the blustering king, Admeto, the other roles were all taken by mezzo-sopranos – clearly no room for countertenors here. Josè Maria Lo Monaco’s Elmiro was terrific, her bright mezzo full of agility and clean attack. Veronique Valdés’ darker, cloudier tone, made for a powerful Nomio–Apollo, while Manuela Custer’s Dorilla, a little breathy at times, displayed a rich chest register. Compositionally, the music for the jealous nymph Eudamia – vying for Elmiro’s attentions – holds interest because it was the first role Vivaldi wrote for his young muse – and possibly lover – Anna Girò. Laura Margaret Smith embraced the vampish campery Ceresa required, her tone tending to hardness although this suited the role. Rosa Bove’s Filindo (a servant in love with Eudamia) almost stole the evening, her coppery mezzo and terrific coloratura in “Rete, lacci, e strali adopra” (by Geminiano Giacomelli), sung whilst loading a rifle and taking aim at a dove which evaded her throughout, fluttering just above the conductor’s head.

Laura Margaret Smith (Eudamia) and Rosa Bove (Filindo) © Clive Barda
Laura Margaret Smith (Eudamia) and Rosa Bove (Filindo)
© Clive Barda

A shot above Marchiol’s bows may have shocked the orchestral performance to life. Taken at deliberate tempi, with several strings to a part, this was Vivalid jogging along at sewing machine tempi, a throwback to the generic performances of I Musici. I longed for an injection of spice and variety, although the horns brought a suitably rustic tang to the bacchanalian scene in the second act and trumpets heralded Apollo’s ascension back up to Olympus as the opera closed, late into the Wexford night.

***11