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Ottone in Villa was Vivaldi's first opera - the first of 94, if the composer's own testimony is to be believed (it probably shouldn't be; fewer than 30 survive). By 1713, the date of its composition, the fame of the "Red Priest" was spreading widely throughout Europe thanks to his colourful instrumental concertos. He was well established in Venice, but the city's unrivalled opera heritage was possibly too daunting an obstacle to any operatic ambitions Vivaldi might have nursed: this first attempt was ushered in with little ceremony in nearby Vicenza. Ottone is humbler in scale than many lavish operas of the time, but there is no lack of musical invention or showmanship - particularly when brought to life with such verve by a terrific cast under conductor Giovanni Antonini, with the trademark percussive vibrancy of Il Giardino Armonico.
The opera's true gem is a dramatic scena in Act Two featuring the mocking commentary of wronged lover Tullia (Roberta Invernizzi), shrouded in echoing swirls of solo violins and recorders, unheard by the centre-stage Caio pouring forth tortured lament - ravishingly sung by sensational Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva. Her barnstorming vengeance aria at the end of Act One fizzes with rapid-fire coloratura and sky-high ornamentation.
Much of the music is standard Baroque fare but, this being Vivaldi, there is usually something special to admire - such as the raging tornado alternating with tender reflection in the Act One aria for Roman Emperor Ottone, sung by rich-voiced, impassioned contralto Sonia Prina.
The convoluted plot (a typical web of courtly intrigue) is harder to follow than most because four of the five principal roles are played by women - but only two are actually female characters. To muddy the waters further, one of these is playing a woman disguised as a man. Confused? Of course, but it doesn't matter: what counts is the expressiveness of the performances. A bass aria or two would have been welcome for tonal variety; poor tenor role Decio, well-sung by Topi Lehtipuu, gets the least inspiring numbers.
Despite its almost apologetic origins, Ottone proved successful enough to drum up subsequent commissions from Venice. There is a wealth of Vivaldi opera to explore - an exciting prospect if treated as compellingly as this. It's not the first recording of Ottone in Villa, but it will be hard to beat.