Q & A: Artistic Director Susan Orlando Talks About The Vivaldi Edition

By Alan Neilson

The Vivaldi Edition from Naïve Records is now entering the 21st year of its incredible plan to record all of Vivaldi’s music, which is held in the National Library in Turin. It is a project much-loved by Vivaldi and Baroque enthusiasts the world over, and continues to grow in popularity with each new recording welcomed with baited breath, not least for their arresting and iconic cover designs!

At the heart of the Vivaldi Edition is Susan Orlando, the project’s artistic director, who has been involved almost since the very beginning, and it is no exaggeration to say that she has been integral to its success. It is not simply her extensive musical knowledge of the Baroque and her ability to assemble the best singers, musicians, conductors, and musicologists, nor her ability to provide artistic shape and direction to the enterprise, which really impresses, but it is her enormous enthusiasm and love for the project.

It was something very much in evidence during an interview OperaWire was fortunate enough to arrange with her during the holiday break.               

OperaWire: How did the idea of recording the complete works of Vivaldi held by the Italian National Library in Turin come about? 

Susan Orlando: The Italian musicologist Alberto Basso had this ambitious idea at the end of the last century while cataloging the music manuscripts housed in the National Library in Turin. Among those works is Vivaldi’s personal library of manuscripts that was purchased for the library in 1930. Most specialists knew of this massive collection of music, 450 pieces including some 20 operas, sacred music, and much instrumental music: nearly all of it in Vivaldi’s hand.

However, only a small part of the collection had been explored and performed, leaving much of it unheard since the 18th Century. Alberto recognized the immense value of this music and began speculating on how it could be made available to the public. After all, music manuscripts mean nothing to the public until they are performed; but a performance is ephemeral.

A recording, however, is something that can reach millions and which, once released, is here to stay. Alberto proposed the idea to a record company in Paris some 20 years ago and the project took off. Unbelievably, we are still at it and scheduled to complete the edition in 2028.

OW: How did you become involved with the project?

SO: I’ve been involved in Baroque music all my life. As a performer, I play the viola da gamba but I have also been a concert organizer throughout my career, first in Boston and then in Italy. I first met Alberto in the ’90s when I was the artistic director of a Baroque music festival not far from Turin. As his project began to develop he needed someone at the record company meetings in Paris who could represent his specific guidelines on how the music was to be recorded and participate in the choosing of artists and other details. Knowing that I speak French fluently and that I am quite familiar with the leading interpreters of this music he proposed that I take on this position. I thought I might do it as a part-time job for a short period but once we began recording this music I realized that we had something quite extraordinary on our hands. Within a few years, my passion for this music and the project was consuming all my time and I eventually became the artistic director. I had not gone looking for this position but at one point I realized that I had the organizational, musical, and linguistic skills to guide this project to completion. Somehow, given the unexpected way it began, it almost felt as if it was my destiny to take this on.

OW: What criteria do you use in selecting the artists for each recording?

SO: My guiding principle has been to choose artists who are steeped in 18th Century Italian repertoire and are fully informed on recent developments concerning historical interpretation. Logically, the people closest to this music, those who have grown up with it and studied it the most thoroughly, tend to be Italian musicians. In turn, this cutting-edge interpretation sets a standard that can then be picked up by all musicians.

The same principle holds true for the vocal music and the operas, which are only found in the National Library in Turin and which, until our recordings, were almost entirely unknown. Italians, singing in their own language, have the advantage of no accent and a thorough understanding of the text. This in turn allows them to act out the drama inherent in the pieces, and especially the recitatives, in a perfectly convincing manner. Of course, there are exceptions like, for example, the French contralto Delphine Galou who sings with no accent and is outstanding in her interpretation of recitatives, as can be heard on the many Vivaldi opera recordings we have done with her. Recently, we had to fill the role of Oresta for our recording of “Argippo” at very short notice. The Swiss soprano Marie Lys stepped in and proved to be a perfect choice; with only two weeks’ notice she came fully prepared and was sensational in every respect. At the end of every one of her arias, the orchestra applauded her, something I have rarely witnessed.

Casting for the operas is always a collaboration between myself and the conductor. Personally, I am ever on the lookout for fresh, young voices to add to productions, thereby launching new talent and variety to our casts.

OW: What do you think has been the contribution of the Vivaldi Edition to our understanding, and to the increased popularity, of Vivaldi’s operas?

SO: Since the beginning, and with few exceptions, we have systematically produced one Vivaldi opera a year, amassing a collection whose sheer extent and quality has unquestionably had a major impact. With the exception of “Orlando Furioso which was done with Marilyn Horne in the ’70s, there were few recordings or modern-day performances of Vivaldi’s operas available until we began this project. Consequently, awareness began to take hold among the public and one began to see the operas we released being performed first as concert performances, then followed by staged performances.

That trend continues today and performances of Vivaldi operas are no longer such a rarity. Although I believe the Vivaldi Edition can take a large part of the credit for this, there have been other factors that have contributed to a resurgence of interest in Vivaldi’s operas, most especially the many recordings and productions of Handel’s operas in the latter part of the 20th Century. This helped pave the way for Vivaldi’s works by familiarizing the public with 18th Century opera. It also meant that musicians, singers, and directors became increasingly skilled in presenting operas from this era.

Neither must we forget the impact of Cecilia Bartoli’s “Vivaldi Album” CD released in 1999 which comprised of individual arias from various Vivaldi operas. That too brought Vivaldi’s work into the spotlight and helped generate interest in his operas.

OW: How do you view Vivaldi’s position as an 18th Century Baroque opera composer?

SO: Vivaldi was part of a movement that was taking place in Italy at that time. Audiences were enthusiastic about operas to the point of often returning night after night and composers were churning out works to satisfy the demand.

A good analogy might be the modern craze for films; the most popular ones become blockbusters, many become classics and many are forgotten, but the audiences continue to clamor for more. Vivaldi was very much a part of that movement and, being held in greater esteem across Europe than many of his contemporaries, his operas must have had a marked influence on the development of opera north of the Alps.

OW: “Argippo” is the latest opera on the Naïve label due for release in the USA (although already available in Europe). Could you tell us something about the work?

SO: Firstly, I should say that though “Argippo is not found in the Turin collection of manuscripts we have chosen to include it as an interesting example of a “pasticcio” opera that was put together by Vivaldi and that, thanks to several versions of the score that have been found, demonstrates how traveling opera groups in Europe in the 18th Century modified operas to fit their needs.

The pasticcio was a common form in the 18th Century in which one composer would generally write the recitatives for an opera as well as some of the arias but would also include arias by other composers or sources. Vivaldi was the mastermind behind a number of pasticcio operas such asDorilla in Tempe,” “Il Tamerlano” (“Bajazet”), and “Catone in Utica,” to name a few.

The original score for “Argippo” is now lost, but what we do have is a collection of 19 arias, without recitatives and its libretto, which was found in Regensburg in 2008/9 as well an anonymous complete score discovered in Darmstadt in 2014. The recording uses both sources and contains many exquisite arias both by Vivaldi and others.  We know that these two scores were in the hands of traveling Italian opera companies working in central Europe in the 18th Century.

As such, they shed light on the way in which an opera could be altered and transformed depending on local performing conditions, the singers available, etc. We know, for example, that the original Prague version of “Argippo (now lost) contained only two arias by other composers while our recorded version has at least six.

OW: How many more operas are still to be recorded?

SO: We have a number of pasticcio operas left to record and several decisions to make concerning incomplete operas and whether we want to reconstruct the missing acts or not. Upon completion of the Vivaldi Edition, which we expect to be in another seven years, we will have recorded the complete operatic works of Antonio Vivaldi. 

OW: One or two of the CDs can be very difficult to find. Are there plans to produce more copies?

SO: Unfortunately, with streaming and downloading becoming ever more popular it is not in the interest of the parent company, Believe, to reprint CDs that are out of stock. That said, they continue to produce physical CDs of each of our new recordings as well as the digital versions that are available on all main music platforms. There has recently been an important step forward: Baroque and Classical music lovers, who traditionally wish to read about the context of the music or, in the case of operas, to have access to the librettos, will welcome a growing tendency on music platforms to include a digital version of the booklets.

OW: Do you have a favorite opera recording from the collection?

SO: That’s a difficult question to answer as my criteria for liking an opera often varies. I might admireIl Giustino” or Il Tamerlano” for the equal distribution of outstanding arias throughout the three acts.  I’ve always been attracted to the rather exotic opera “La Verità in Cimento” which, because it was one of our early opera recordings, may have received less notice than many that have followed. “Orlando Furioso” too, which stands out in my mind for its dramatic drive, is a great opera.

Honestly, I’d say they are all worth listening to as there is not one that doesn’t have any number of outstanding arias but, of course, I’ve put too much time into the production of these operas to feel otherwise!


Behind the ScenesInterviews