Even hard-core Vivaldians will not be blamed for being a little mystified by the appearance on disc of the opera Bajazet, here recorded for the first time on Virgin Classics. A cursory glance at Antonio Vivaldi's worklist in Grove's will not make its pedigree readily apparent, but closer inspection reveals that it is given as an alternate title to Il Tamerlano, admittedly not as splashy a moniker as Bajazet. First presented during the carnival season in Verona in 1735, Bajazet is not all Vivaldi, being assembled by him, in part, to incorporate arias written by his contemporaries, as was the custom in this period. Bajazet does not easily betray its piecemeal manner of construction and, as an opera, is surprisingly unified in tone and style.
Fabio Biondi is the driving force behind this revival, and his period instrument group Europa Galante is fabulous throughout; the opening "Sinfonia" picks the listener up and will not let go. In the aspect of rhythm, Bajazet is one of Vivaldi's most interesting operas, and the mandolin-like strumming pattern underlaid to the aria "Del destin non dee lagnarsi," sung with character and aplomb by Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, has an almost rock & roll quality to it. Another outstanding highlight worth noting is mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux' dynamite performance of "Quel guerriero in campo armato," a Vivaldian gloss on an aria strongly associated with the famous castrato singer Farinelli. This is a rapid-fire, ridiculously ornate, and difficult aria where there is practically no place to breathe, being a thicket of breakneck sixteenth notes and treacherous leaps. The sudden, widespread acceptance of Vivaldi's previously little-known vocal music is great news for listeners, but is perhaps bad news for singers! Genaux is really on her game here, and additional evidence of that is supplied via the bonus DVD included with this set, featuring video clips of the six primary artists included taken during the recording sessions for Bajazet.
Bajazet has a strong cast, but there is one significantly weak link, notably mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, who has the role of Andronico and, consequently, many pages of the music. Garanca's voice is pretty and well pitched, but she does not seem to have much grasp of the character and her singing is rather bland. At the very least, Bajazet is always representative of what this opera is supposed to sound like, which is what most listeners who are interested in obscure operas are usually looking for in such a set. That Bajazet is additionally excellent in other ways is a bonus that makes it more of an essential acquisition, and fans of Vivaldi's vocal music should not be without it.