Even when the composer is Antonio Vivaldi, performing Baroque opera is no easy task. Convoluted plots, stiff staging and fuzzy scholarship are all inherent to the genre, not to mention making a period piece accessible and enjoyable for more than hard-core devotees. So it was a joy to see the production of Farnace at this year’s Lednicko Valtický Hudební Festival in southern Moravia, which put a fresh, innovative face on a 300-year-old relic.

Martin Javorský (Aquilio) and Sylva Čmugrová (Selinda) in the Valtice Castle Theatre
© Pavel Kristian

The setting was charming, a restored 18th-century theater in Valtice Castle that still operates with roll-down backdrops and generic painted panels for sets. It also offered regional historical connections. After its 1727 premiere in Venice, Farnace was staged in Prague in 1730. From the multiple librettos rewritten for subsequent performances, the festival featured the one created in 1731 in honor of Joseph Johann Adam, Prince of Lichtenstein, a Vivaldi patron who died in Valtice in 1732.

The title character, a Mediterranean king, has just been defeated by the Romans when the opera opens. Rather than have his family taken into captivity, he urges his wife Tamiri to kill herself and their son. His angry mother-in-law, Queen Berenice, would rather see Farnace dead, and schemes with the Roman general, Pompeo. Meanwhile, Farnace’s captive sister Selinda juggles advances from two suitors – Aquilio, a Roman prefect, and Gilades, captain of Berenice’s army – in an attempt to save her brother. After a great deal of hand-wringing and saber-rattling, everyone emerges alive and reconciled.

Marek Štryncl directs Musica Florea
© Pavel Kristian

More than in most opera performances, the foundation of this one was the music, played with verve and flair by Marek Štryncl and his Prague-based Musica Florea ensemble. Conducting with a Baroque guitar strapped to his chest, which added a percussive touch to the recitative, Štryncl struck a lively tempo and sense of anticipation in the sinfonia and never looked back. Spirited playing provided much of the evening’s energy and emotion, neatly complementing the singers and giving the performance a modern gloss. Punctilious and respectful, Štryncl still managed to make the music sound as if it had just been unwrapped yesterday.

Zoltán Megyesi (Farnace) and Marta Infante (Tamiri)
© Pavel Kristian

That approach was a perfect fit with Andrea Miltnerová’s direction and choreography. Early operas can be stiflingly staid affairs, with cardboard characters rooted to one spot, singing directly to the audience rather than each other. The performers in this one interacted, emoted and moved just enough to seem natural, retaining many of the period gestures and mannerisms while incorporating them into a more modern narrative flow. It was a well-informed and effective balance, knitting together what is essentially a string of beautiful, impassioned arias and creating dramatic tension.

Two additional elements made this a production of uncommon depth. Miltnerová used three dancers to augment the narrative, with two of them, Romana Konrádová and Klára Suldovská, playing furies. They would creep up on the singers and with sly, stylized gestures, stoke their anguish and despair. This sort of byplay can be distracting, but in this case it was bewitching in the best sense of the term. And turbans off to Christopher Vinz and his team for a brilliant, colorful set of costumes straight out of The Arabian Nights.

Michaela Šrůmová (Berenice), Romana Konradova, Victoria Novak Infante and Klara Suldovska
© Pavel Kristian

As Farnace and Tamiri, Zoltán Megyesi and Marta Infante provided solid leads, singing with fervor and technical finesse. Michaela Šrůmová played a dark, threatening Berenice with a voice to match, and Zuzana Kopřivová’s crystalline soprano was almost too sweet for Gilades. Sylva Čmugrová did not have the strongest voice of the evening, but her coy, coquettish manner made for a persuasive Selinda. Not surprisingly, the orchestra garnered the most enthusiastic applause after the final curtain. And the cast stayed in character, taking choreographed bows. In all, an enthralling evening and a class act.

Frank's press trip was funded by the Lednicko Valtický Hudební Festival