Not only cursed to bear a name nearly identical to that of one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, Leonardo Vinci also had the misfortune to die just three months after the premiere of his greatest opera, reportedly murdered with a cup of poisoned chocolate at the age of 36. Though his operas remained extraordinarily popular through much of the 18th century, they soon devolved into titles found only in books of operatic history. But two Vinci works have recently been released on CD, La Partenope and Artaserse, the latter hands down the best opera recording of 2012!  

The precise date of Vinci’s birth is unknown, but the best evidence suggests he was born around 1696 in Calabria and entered the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples at the age of 12. There the prodigious Vinci had his first run-ins with Nicola Porpora (ten years his senior), a rivalry that dogged him for the rest of his life. Vinci’s first successes were at the Teatro de’Fiorentini, Naples’s newest opera house and one principally devoted to the burgeoning genre of commedia per musica.

Part of Neapolitan opera since the late seventeenth century, comic scenes had been generally limited to intermezzi; gradually, however, full-length comedies evolved, many wholly or partly sung in the local dialect. Vinci’s comic operas became immensely popular, and until recently, his recorded legacy consisted almost solely of these works thanks to the advocacy of conductor Antonio Florio and his La Cappella de’Turchini who recorded a splendid anthology of L’Opera buffa Napoletana for OPUS 111, as well as assorted cantatas and intermezzi.

Florio also recorded Le Zite ‘ngalera, Vinci’s earliest surviving full-length commedia from 1722.  Unfortunately this spirited performance is out of print and available only in expensive used copies.

Sadly, the label OPUS 111 is now defunct along with its superb series I Tesori di Napoli, but Florio remains devoted to Vinci, and Dynamic has released his recording of a 1725 opera seria, La Rosmira fedele (called here La Partenope).

An adaptation of a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia for a 1699 opera by Luigi Mancia, Partenope derives from the myth of the founding of Naples. This libretto quickly became popular and was set by many composers even including a version by Manuel de Zumaya staged in Mexico in the early 18th century.

In 1722 Domenico Sarro composed his for Naples where it was a great success. When Vinci was invited to compose an opera for Venice in 1725, possibly at the suggestion of Faustina Bordoni who had already sung Sarro’s setting, he chose Partenope. As Vinci was operating under a tight deadline, all of the recitatives and several of the choruses were copied from the Sarro, although he did shift the focus away from the character of Partenope (likely to be of less interest to the Venetians) to the romantic vicissitudes of the faithful Rosmira.

Perhaps Florio calls the opera Partenope since Handel’s 1730 opera is the most familiar setting; when Vivaldi fashioned a pasticcio in 1738, he retained the title La Rosmira fedele.

While Handel was captivated by the Queen of Naples–one of his most bewitching female characters, Vinci focuses more on Rosmira who arrives disguised as a male “Eurimene” searching for her errant lover Arsace who has been courting Partenope. Rosmira quickly reveals her identity to Arsace yet swears him to secrecy.

The tangled plot follows Rosmira’s machinations as she tries to humiliate Arsace into leaving Partenope and returning to her. Eventually Arsace is maneuvered into a duel with “Eurimene.” Unable to fight a woman or to reveal her true identity, Arsace has a brilliant idea: he proposes that they be allowed to battle bare-chested. Outsmarted, Rosmira forgives and reunites with Arsace, while Partenope decides that she really does after all love Armindo who has been politely standing on the sidelines all along.

Although a dramma per musica, Vinci’s opera is airily light in tone (there are no life-and-death issues at stake), and its sparkling music resembles his early comic operas more than his later Metastasian masterpieces.

Intrepid Vinci fans have long treasured a broadcast from the 2004 Beaune Festival of an excellent concert performance of the complete La Partenope conducted by Florio with several of the same singers who appear on the Dynamic CD. However, although a pleasant, often lively rendition, the new Partenope is somewhat disappointing. Deriving from an April-May 2011 staging in Murchia, Spain, the live recording unfortunately has many more rough edges than had it been captured in the studio. In addition, the opera is substantially cut including losing all its intermezzi; Dynamic’s version runs about 40 minutes shorter than the Beaune broadcast.

The years haven’t been altogether kind to Sonia Prina whose grandly authoritative Partenope is now far more brusque and hard-edged (with increasingly labored coloratura) than it was in 2004. Occasionally hard-pressed, Maria Grazia Schiavo’s passionately commanding Rosmira dominates the action, while Maria Ercolano’s confused yet ultimately noble Arsace proves a worthy foil.

Tenor Stefano Ferrari’s vigorous Armindo provides an appealing opponent, but Charles Do Santos’s wan, hooty countertenor Ormonte is the major blot, while Eufemia Tufano’s plummy Emilio is mostly pleasing. Florio’s band, now christened I Turchini di Antonio Florio (!), does its best but fails to match the finesse and élan of his earlier studio efforts. Dynamic is soon following up this CD with a DVD of the Murcia staging which looks pleasingly opulent.

Much to his rival Porpora’s chagrin, Vinci’s exploding fame allowed him to cease writing commedias, and he became more and more sought after as a composer of opera seria, particularly for Rome’s Teatro delle Dame where he often collaborated with the most famous librettist of the time, Pietro Metastasio. The important contemporary English music historian Charles Burney hailed Vinci as a revolutionary innovator:

…the first composer since the invention of recitative by Jacopo Peri in 1600 [who] seems to have occasioned any considerable revolution in the musical drama…Vinci seems to have been the first opera composer who…without degrading his art, rendered it the friend, though not the slave to poetry, by simplifying and polishing melody, and calling attention of the audience chiefly to the voice-part, by disentangling it from fugue, complication, and laboured contrivance.

Along with his student Pergolesi, Vinci became one of the first and most influential exemplars of this new galant style in opera which sought to simplify the increasingly complex baroque ways and return to simpler, more “classical” forms. The result was more “pleasing,” more melodic, more homophonic. One of the best books written about 18th century music, Daniel Heartz’s Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style 1720-1780, devotes extensive space to Vinci’s importance in the evolution of this highly consequential mode.

During a time when operas were virtually disposable commodities, when most pieces played a single run never to be seen again, Vinci’s operas were astonishingly popular. After its premiere in 1730, his final work Artaserse was repeatedly revived, particularly for special occasions such as the opening of Dresden’s first public opera house in 1746. One contemporary commentator, Charles de Brosses, remarked that “People do not want to see an opera, ballet, stage décor or singer they have already seen in another season, unless it is some excellent opera by Vinci or some very famous voice.”

Appreciating the importance of Vinci had been difficult until the release of Virgin Classics’s new recording of Artaserse, an astonishing achievement that immediately announced itself not only as 2012’s best opera recording but as one of the best recordings ever of an opera seria.

Although he also composed the first settings of Metastasio’s Catone in Utica, Semiramide riconosciuta, and Alessandro nell’Indie (the basis also of Handel’s Poro and Hasse’s Cleofide), Vinci’s Artaserse became the first (and possibly best) version of the libretto set more often than any other in operatic history. It’s easy to see why as it exemplifies its writer’s greatest virtues.

Since opera seria is almost entirely aria-driven, it was incumbent upon a librettist to come up with a drama that offered as many opportunities for solos as possible. Each character’s arias must be evenly spaced-out and vary in emotional content, thus a happy aria should be followed by an angry one then by a resigned one, etc. Accordingly, each of the five main characters in Artaserse has five arias: two in the first act, two in the second and one in the third–a sixth character has one aria per act.

Metastasio’s mastery at adhering to the genre’s absolute requirements (while at the same time creating a complex drama) reached its pinnacle in Artaserse. The despicable Artabano, craving power, stabs King Serse to death and attempts to put the blame on Serse’s son Dario, who is quickly executed by order of Serse’s eldest son and successor Artaserse.

However, Dario is posthumously exonerated, so Artabano gives the bloody murder weapon to his son Arbace swearing him to secrecy. Arbace is of course discovered and “exposed” as the murderer to the shock of his great friend Artaserse and Mandane, his fiancée and Artaserse’s sister. Arbace nobly keeps his oath even to the moment of his execution when his father relents and confesses, yet Arbace forgives him and indeed begs that his life be spared to which Artaserse agrees. Arbace is of course reunited with Mandane and Artaserse returns to the arms of Semira, Arbace’s sister, so all ends happily.

From the thrilling overture on, the increasingly invaluable Diego Fasolis leads the superb Concerto Köln (and, in an extravagant gesture, the Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera Lugano which sings only the one-minute coro at the end) in this decidedly risky Artaserse: since the opera was written for Rome, its premiere cast included only male singers as women were barred from its stages. So Virgin Classics’s version features five countertenors (two taking female roles) and a single tenor; this daring casting was reportedly the idea of its leading “lady” Max Emanuel Cencic.

The new recording’s cast may have initially looked like some sort of stunt as well as an impossible barrier for some listeners—who could possibly digest so many countertenors singing 23 of the work’s 28 da capo arias (the ornaments, by the way, are miraculously good throughout)? Yet for all but the most adamantly allergic these five extraordinary singers show just how far the art of countertenor singing has progressed.

It would be difficult to imagine more accomplished exponents than these brought together to make Vinci’s case: Philippe Jaroussky (French), Cencic (Croatian), Franco Fagioli (Argentinian), Valer Barna-Sabadus (Romanian), and Yuriy Minenko (Russian). If nothing else, it proves that the long dominance of British and American countertenors is now truly a thing of the past. Enormous care was taken in the casting—while all are fully in command of the intense demands of Vinci’s music, each sounds completely different from the others–no, all countertenors don’t sound alike–so it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Jaroussky’s sweet and placid Artaserse spars uneasily with his sister, the passionate and sometimes ferocious Mandane of Cencic. The recent staging of the opera in Nancy, France proved its stage-worthiness, and modern audiences welcomed men en travesti as easily they do women. Mandane’s costumes in acts 1 and 3 were quite over-the-top, but Cencic’s more “conservative” gown for act 2 caused his boyfriend/manager to remark on Facebook on his striking resemblance to the Marschallin!

Barna-Sabadus’s smoky and minxish Semira defiantly fights off the unwelcome advances of Minenko’s strutting, malevolent Megabise.

Not be outdone by the higher-voiced majority, Daniel Behle (son of dramatic soprano Renata Behle) imbues the villainy of Artabano with an audacious bravura. His virile tenor handily negotiates the florid demands of his music which is among the opera’s most exciting.

However, the absolute revelation of the cast is Fagioli as an intensely moving Arbace. His rich, agile voice, secure over an astonishingly large range, steals the show in a role written for the great castrato Carestini by providing some of the most striking countertenor singing ever captured on a recording. Unfortunately the Nancy staging (which mostly took the opera quite seriously) presents Arbace’s magnificent scena which concludes act 1 (and which features one of Metastasio’s most indelible simile aria texts) as a temperamental divo melt-down. Thankfully, it doesn’t prevent Fagioli from being as astonishing as he is on Virgin’s CDs!

Vo solcando un mar crudele
Senza vele, e senza sarte:
Frema l’onda, il ciel s’imbruna
Cresce il vento, e manca l’arte;
E il voler della fortuna
Son constretto a seguitar.
Infelice! In questo stato
Son da tutti abandonato:
Meco sola e l’innocenza,
Che mi porta a naufragar.

I go plowing a cruel sea
Without a sail and without rigging:
The waves boil, the sky darkens,
The wind increases, and I lack skill;
And the will of fortune
I am constrained to follow.
Unhappy man! In this state
Am I abandoned by all:
With me is only my innocence,
Which carries me toward shipwreck.

By strange coincidence, Fagioli appeared last summer again as Metastasio’s Arbace but in Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse at the Martina Franca Festival in Italy (partnered by La Partenope’s Schiavo as Mandane), and again he was extraordinary.

Artaserse proved an unexpectedly ear-opening experience. After I received them, for weeks the three CDs almost never left my CD player: I had become completely addicted—particularly to the striking second act where one glory follows another. The nearly impossible had happened: here was a “new” great baroque opera—not at all like Handel or Vivaldi, something entirely of its own vintage. At last all those extraordinary claims made for Vinci made sense! As appealing as the Florio-Vinci recordings over the years have been, they didn’t change one’s mind about opera history: Fasolis’s flaming Artaserse does exactly that.

We can hope that an upcoming concert performance in Vienna of Polifemo by Nicola Porpora with Fagioli (and co-starring yet another superb countertenor, Xavier Sabata) will perhaps spur a similar invaluable reclamation for yet another important, mostly forgotten opera seria composer.