True to its name and first of all the theatres in Italy, La Fenice (The Phoenix) reopened its doors after a long closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, not for a recital or a concert, but for a real staging, albeit an unusual one. The selected work, Ottone in villa, is the first opera of its fellow citizen, Antonio Vivaldi. Presented in 1713 in Vicenza, it has a cast of just five characters, no chorus, a small orchestra and no particular scenic requirements.

<i>Ottone in villa</i> © Michele Crosera
Ottone in villa
© Michele Crosera

As for Teatro Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida last year – but for different reasons – the audience sits in the boxes and onstage, while the singers and orchestra share the stalls area which has been emptied of seats. A little over 200 spectators are allowed, an eighth of what the theatre could normally host. With their horizontal and vertical divisions, the boxes comply with the required social distancing, isolating the audience in household groups, while the seats on stage offer enough room between them.

A wooden structure, reminiscent of the keel of a ship under construction, forms a permanent installation in this opening phase. The lack of a curtain and the elimination of the theatre features with which we have been familiar for 500 years demand that the director be inventive in a way that Giovanni Di Cicco only partially fulfils. His mise en espace does not make for an effective dramaturgy and Ottone in villa continues to be what it is: a mere sequence of 28 gorgeous arias. The singers, standing at due distance, perform their arias without psychological involvement nor dramatic development – admittedly, something difficult to find in Domenico Lalli's libretto. The main protagonist of the opera is not Ottone, the title role, but Cleonilla, who has as many as seven arias in comparison with Ottone's four. She not only responds with deception to the emperor's love, but swaps her erotic interests between the beautiful, young Caio and the stranger “Ostilio” (a woman, Tullia, in disguise) – a fact that exonerates Cleonilla in the eyes of the gullible emperor.

The modern fate of this opera is peculiar: the Danish production of Ottone in villa in 2014 also took place in an unusual location, a circular theatre that suggested a circus-like staging. Here, the absence of scenery – apart from Massimo Checchetto's installation – and Carlos Tieppo's modern costumes do not provide clarity to a performance that relies on Cleonilla's dance movements (Di Cicco is, primarily, a dancer and choreographer) and on the voices of interpreters who specialise in this repertoire. Unfortunately, their sound was a little intermittent, depending on the direction the singer faced, either towards the boxes or towards the stage. The acoustics of the Venetian theatre only partially mitigated this problem.

<i>Ottone in villa</i> © Michele Crosera
Ottone in villa
© Michele Crosera

After the recording and the aforesaid Danish production, Sonia Prina has returned to the title role of Ottone, a fatuous and naive character who neglects ruling to play with the fickle Cleonilla instead. Prina could sing the part with her eyes closed and hers are the most vocally demanding arias. She tackled the coloratura in the medium-low register with ease and elegance. These coloratura have a rather instrumental texture; Vivaldi's L'estro armonico concertos were composed just a few years earlier.

Ottone's most precious moments are to be found in Caio's five arias (originally for castrato Bartolomeo Bartoli), entrusted here to the soprano Lucia Cirillo: the poignant echo aria and that of the “augelletto”, both in the second act, are two gems. Later on, the wind instruments positioned themselves in the side boxes, imitating bird calls, while the theatre was flooded in a magical light, one of the few moments when Fabio Barettin's light designing was notable.

Cleonilla is the only “real” woman and soprano Giulia Semenzato elegantly exposed all the femininity of her character with sinuous movements on the platform that extended into the stalls like a fashion catwalk. Hers are the first three arias of the opera and they instantly define her shallow, inconsistent character: in the first she praises “the dewy grass, the pretty flower”; in the second she pretends to love Caius; in the third, Ottone. The most emotional moments were those expressed by Ostilio/Tullia, here an effective Michela Antenucci. Valentino Buzza was the only male performer as Decio, Ottone's mistreated confidant.

The slim orchestra, about twenty musicians, were directed with vivacity by Diego Fasolis from one of the harpsichords, while some instrumentalists gave wonderful solos. In the end, it was Prina, Cirillo and Fasolis who particularly stood out.

***11