A Vivaldi opera revival is always cause for celebration, especially when itʼs being performed by Collegium 1704. Founder and director Václav Luks has a knack for dusting off neglected or overlooked gems and bringing them to sparkling life with his virtuoso ensemble.

<i>Arsilda</i> in Prague © Petra Hajská
Arsilda in Prague
© Petra Hajská

Arsilda was Vivaldiʼs fourth opera, and a hit when it premiered at the Teatro SantʼAngelo in Venice in 1716 – though certainly not because of the story, which is convoluted even by Baroque standards. The title character is torn between love interests Barzane and Tamese, who is reportedly dead when the opera opens. His twin sister Lisea has been impersonating him, but soon the real Tamese shows up disguised as a gardener. After a series of improbable plot twists, Barzane is reunited with Lisea, whom he had thought dead, Tamese recaptures his throne, and the opera ends happily with a double wedding: Tamese marries Arsilda, and Barzane marries Lisea.

This production was given lush staging in Bratislava and at the Versailles Royal Opera in 2017, but the performance in Prague was one of those rare instances when a concert version of the opera seemed preferable. Without all the characters and plot contortions to follow across the stage, it was much easier to focus on the music and singing, which were sublime.

Mireille Lebel © Petra Hajská
Mireille Lebel
© Petra Hajská

Collegium 1704 plays early music with distinctive verve and flair, respecting its roots while lending it freshness and spontaneity. This approach is a perfect fit with Vivaldi, highlighting the energy and color in his scores. Along with being a gifted conductor, Luks is a dedicated student and researcher, and there is not a single note in his ensembleʼs performances that has not been thought through. For Arsilda, the music had a pulsing quality that created its own narrative and a spirited richness that made it just as emotive as the vocals. Luks himself was the liveliest character on the stage, conducting from a harpsichord that he frequently left to venture among the players, drawing out the sounds he wanted with elaborate body language.

Seven soloists were arrayed in front of the orchestra, and there was not a single weak voice in the group. Stepping in as a last-minute substitute, mezzo Aneta Petrasová did heroic work as Lisea – notably better in the recitatives than the arias, but solid throughout. As her confidante Mirinda, Lenka Máčiková showed a fine lyric soprano voice and engaging dramatic style. Mezzo Mireille Lebel was not commanding in the title role, mostly because her voice has a gentle touch and melodic lilt that float rather than flash. Tenor Fernando Guimarães (Tamese), bass Lisandro Abadie (Cisardo) and soprano Helena Hozová (Nicandro) all provided strong support.

Kangmin Justin Kim © Petra Hajská
Kangmin Justin Kim
© Petra Hajská

Even amid that talent, the runaway vocal star of the evening was Kangmin Justin Kim, a Korean-American countertenor with an exceptionally pure voice and impressive list of Baroque performing credits and collaborations (he made history earlier this year as the first-ever male Cherubino at Covent Garden). Kim can be achingly tender or bitingly bellicose, all with a clarity and quality that expand traditional notions of what a countertenor can and should do.

A nine-member version of the Collegium Vocale 1704 chorus added fire to the emotional turns, then Luks finished with a soft flourish – a surprising but satisfying contrast to an enthusiastic performance that held the audience rapt for nearly three hours. Arsilda may be a 300-year-old dowager, but in this ensembleʼs hands itʼs a spring beauty.

*****