Long-lost Vivaldi opera staged in Prague after more than 270 years

Antonio Vivaldi

Argippo, an opera by the famous Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, was last heard in the early 1730s. It disappeared just a couple of years after its premiere and was believed to have been lost forever. Until, that is, a determined Czech musician discovered the piece in a sheaf of anonymous scores in a collection in the Bavarian town of Regensburg. Last Saturday the lost Vivaldi opera was performed for the first time in over 270 years in the grand setting of the Spanish Hall at Prague Castle. The man who found it - conductor and harpsichordist Ondřej Macek – was also in charge of its direction.

Argippo, a musical drama in three acts, is the only opera Antonio Vivaldi composed for Prague. It was first staged by an Italian music company in 1730 in the private theatre of Count Franz Anton Sporck, who commissioned the piece. The theatre burned down just a few years after the premiere and Argippo was thought to have disappeared forever. The only surviving copy of the libretto was deposited in the National Library in Prague. Ondřej Macek sums up its rather complicated plot:

“It is a typical baroque opera with a rather complicated plot. It is a story of love and hate and it is full of intrigues and exchange of identities. A princess has two suitors and the one she denies tries to get rid of his rival by intriguing and plotting. That’s basically the whole story of the opera.”

Ondřej Macek founded and conducts a baroque music ensemble and therefore he is used to searching the archives for forgotten 18th century music. Knowing that Prague was the only place where Argippo was heard, he says he was always haunted by the possibility that he could come across the lost opera one day.

“All that I knew was the title of the opera. The music was always believed to have been lost. What remained was the libretto and the names of the singers, printed in the programme for the premiere. This print was deposited in the National Library in Prague. So we didn’t know the music, but we knew the libretto and we knew who featured in the piece.”

Having nothing else but a libretto in his hands, I wondered what made him search in Bavarian Regensburg, of all places:

“I found out that in 1733, three years after the premiere, the Italian music ensemble appeared in Regensburg. They were invited there after the theatre in Prague burned down. There is a well-known private music collection, which belongs to the family of Thun-Taxis, but it is accessible to researchers. I thought the Italians might have brought something with them and I was lucky to find an anonymous music collection by various composers which also included arias from Argippo.”

Ondřej Macek says he needed just one glance at the score to recognize Vivaldi’s typical style. However, his find had to be confirmed by Vivaldi specialists. Francesco Fanna is the director of the Vivaldi Institute Scientific Committee in Vienna:

“The score is definitely part of a Vivaldi opera. It is composed in a style which is typical for Vivaldi. The seven arias discovered by Mr Macek in the library in Regensburg are very important and very interesting for musicologists because they represent one stylistic phase in the whole body of Vivaldi’s operas.”

However, the handwritten scores that Macek found in Regensburg were incomplete, lacking roughly one third of the work, and it took him more than a year to fill in the missing parts and reconstruct the opera.

“I used the same method Vivaldi used himself. When he was writing a new opera, he would use arias from his previous pieces, either because they were popular or because the characters and dialogues fitted in. In every Vivaldi opera you can find parts of the previous ones. So I searched his operas that were composed five years earlier and five years later and looked for arias that would fit into Argippo. It is a complicated process. Everything must fit together, the verses, the music and so on.”

Although Vivaldi is best known for his instrumental works, notably the set of violin concertos The Four Seasons, Ondřej Macek says his operas are becoming more and more appreciated:

“Vivaldi is known mainly for his violin concertos and he was hailed for those even in the past. But he regarded himself mainly as an opera composer, which is how he was seen in Venice. He even worked there as an impresario of an opera house. So not only did he conduct operas but he produced them as well. He wrote more than forty operas - as many as George Friedrich Handel, who is one of the best known composers of baroque operas.”

Unfortunately, out of the forty operas composed by Vivaldi only about twenty of them remained to this day. On the other hand, the unique discovery of Argippo suggests the future may still hold something in stock.

After its premiere in Prague, the long lost opera will be performed in June in a truly authentic setting - the baroque theatre in the South Bohemian town of Český Krumlov. But perhaps the most important performance awaits Ondřej Macek and his ensemble in October in Venice, where Vivaldi himself premiered most of his operas.