After devoting several of the so-called “Midnight Performances” (they actually start at 22:30 but finish well after midnight ) to operas by Handel and Gluck, the Enescu Festival’s organisers invited the period instrument ensemble Accademia Bizantina, led by director Ottavio Dantone, to perform another 18th-century opus, Antonio Vivaldi’s (Il) Giustino. Comparing the latter with the operas previously presented in the series doesn’t necessary put Giustino in the most favorable light. Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Orfeo ed Eurydice are masterpieces, full of innovative touches. Even in a minor work, as Silla certainly is, Handel displayed a feeling for vocal writing and a gift for giving three-dimensionality to his dramatis personae that Vivaldi simply doesn’t possess. Where the Italian excels is in his instrumental writing (many years of teaching in Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà music school were definitely helpful in this respect). Giustino’s instrumental score abounds with wonderful moments: the full of pathos segments in the slow component of the opening sinfonia, the delicate psaltery melody at the end of the second act, shimmering wind textures, a quotation from The Four Seasons’ La Primavera (one of the many self-references to his prior opuses). All were rendered with great élan by the Accademia Bizantina instrumentalists, constantly bringing forward the rhythmic energy that Vivaldi’s music is known for.

Delphine Galou © Andrada Pavel
Delphine Galou
© Andrada Pavel

Giustino had its first performance at the Teatro Capranica in Rome during the 1724 carnival festivities. An older libretto by Niccolò Beregan (also serving as basis for operas by Albinoni and Handel) was adapted for Vivaldi by Pietro Pariati. It’s the tale – only partially anchored in historical reality – of the ascent to power of Eastern Roman Emperor Justin I, the founder of the Justinian dynasty, who began life as a peasant before raising through the military ranks. (It’s certainly a suitable subject to be taken up by an ensemble based in Ravenna and named Accademia Bizantina!). In the tradition of Baroque librettos, the plot is very convoluted, including love interests, intrigue and jealousy, political coups, bears and sea monsters, not to mention divine interventions. In a staged version, everything could be clarified and easier to ingest, but here the public had to be content with just alternating, not always illustrative enough recitatives and arias, plus leaflets containing the translated text.

Emőke Baráth © Andrada Pavel
Emőke Baráth
© Andrada Pavel

Most of the soloists had recently joined Dantone and his ensemble for a well-received recording. In the Bucharest performance, the individual vocal contributions were consistently good, with some really standing out. Swiss tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was the rebellious Vitaliano, later determined to also be Giustino’s brother. He demonstrated a remarkable dramatic temperament, rendering the octave leaps in his second act “Quando serve alla raggione” and the martial “All’armi, o guerrieri” with great assurance. Clear-voiced Emöke Baráth was a superb Arianna, the faithful empress. She gracefully overcame the many difficulties of her multiple arias that make Arianna the main character in the opera despite its title. Listening to “Per noi soave e bella” and to “Quel amoroso ardor” was especially rewarding. Baráth also blended well with mezzo Silke Gäng, interpreting the role of emperor Anastasio, Arianna’s temporarily jealous husband. The latter’s legato in “Vedrò con mio diletto” was noteworthy even if one might have missed the purity of a countertenor’s voice in the passage.

Soprano Ana Maria Labin was a perfectly adequate as Leocasta, Anastasio’s sister who is in love with Giustino, the peasant that saved her from a savage bear’s grip. Her “Senti l'aura che leggiera” was rendered with sensitivity. Soprano Arianna Venditelli, as the scheming general Amanzio, displayed a resonant voice in her lower range. Countertenor Alessandro Giangrande played double duty as Andronico (brother of Vitalino in love with Leocasta) and Polidarte (Vitalino’s envoy). In the title role, contralto Delphine Galou had a tremendous stage presence, seeming to be involved in the action, regardless of she was singing or not. Rendering Giustino’s lines didn’t require a great deal of vocal acrobatics, but Galou’s warm, deep instrument captured everyone’s attention, especially in the unconventional, psalter-accompanied “Ho nel petto un cor si forte”. The ensemble of soloists also played the chorus’ role.

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