Lost Vivaldi Opera

After a 278-year hiatus, a long-lost opera by the Italian Baroque master Antonio Vivaldi will be performed in Prague Saturday in a tour de force for a young Czech conductor with a detective's nose.

"Argippo", a two-hour drama about a young princess smitten with a dishonest suitor, was scouted out nearly a year-and-a-half ago by 37-year-old Ondrej Macek, who founded and directs a Baroque music ensemble.

"I was really very happy when I found the scores that everyone thought lost," he said modestly.

The discovery came in November 2006, and word immediately swept the world of opera. Francesco Fanna, director of the Vivaldi Institute in the 18th-century master's birthplace Vienna, waxed a bit more enthusiastic, calling the find "exceptional".

On Saturday, "Argippo" -- the only opera Vivaldi actually wrote for Prague and staged only once, in Prague, in 1730 -- will be revived in the sumptuous setting of the Spanish Hall in the Prague Castle, a room normally reserved for huge official receptions or special parliamentary sessions.

It is "one of the rare places in Prague where acoustics are adapted to Baroque music," said Macek, a harpsichordist and musicologist who has directed his own Baroque music ensemble, Cappella Accademica, since the 1990s.

On Saturday, Macek will be conducting another ensemble, Hofmusici, for the world premier of the reconstructed "Argippo".

Vivaldi, who lived 1678 to 1741, is best known popularly for his instrumental works, notably his set of four violin concertos, the "Four Seasons". But interest in his operas -- he himself claimed to have written 94 in all -- has been growing.

Macek was not alone in the search for "Argippo" though efforts by others were in vain. "They all stopped in Prague," he said.

The Czech conductor was used to poking around old archives to revive forgotten 18th-century scores. Once he set his mind to it, the trail towards "Argippo" was "easy", he said.

The private theatre of Count Franz Anton Sporck who commissioned the opera had long burned down and the only surviving copy of the libretto was in Prague's National Library.

Macek's next "logical" step was to sniff out the movements of the Italian musicians recruited to perform the 1730 premier.

"After Prague, the Antonio Denzio company left for Regensburg (Germany), so I decided to go there myself." His quest led him to the private archives of the princely home of Thurn und Taxis, in Bavaria.

Within two weeks, Macek happened upon the scores, tucked inside an 18th-century musical manual.

"I immediately knew that this is what I was looking for because it corresponded to the libretto from Prague's National Library," said Macek.

Once the scores were authenticated by the Vivaldi Institute Scientific Committee in Venice, the Czech conductor dove into reconstructing the opera. The handwritten scores found in Regensburg were incomplete, lacking one-third of the work.

Delving into all available arias by Vivaldi at the time, Macek was able to fill in the missing parts of the "musical drama in three acts".

After Prague, "Argippo" will be performed in early June in the Castle Theatre at Cesky Krumlov, another Baroque performance hall near the Austrian border, then in October in Venice.

Another long-lost Vivaldi opera, "Motezuma" which was first performed in 1733, came to light in 2002 when Hamburg-based musicologist Steffen Voss found a copy of the score in the archives of a Berlin-based choral society, Sing-Akademie zu Berlin.

de Brantigny

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