Summer Blockbuster

Friday, May 12, 2017

It’s the last show of Tempesta di Mare’s year of the The Four Seasons. And the year’s going out with a bang.

It turns out that Vivaldi was holding back during Fall, Winter and Spring—who knew? But now he brings the big guns out. Banish those thoughts of lazy days and clinking ice in cold drinks. In Summer, Vivaldi takes us stormchasing on one of the most thrilling rides in instrumental music.

The north wind comes right at us in Movement #1—great swirling gales of massed strings with one solo violin slicing mercilessly through. And for the finale: a full-fledged, full-out tempesta with roaring winds, cascading torrents and hail slashing over the countryside like bullets.

A dramatic tour-de-force like Summer is Vivaldi all over, every inch the showman. It’s also every inch Vivaldi’s Venice. Set pieces like Summer open a window on one of the most fascinating stories in show business, Venetian stagecraft. Baroque Venice was the Hollywood of its time.

Stage spectaculars as we know them were born in Venice, more or less. With centuries of expertise gleaned in producing Venice’s famous Carnivals, Venetians were poised to invent a whole new art form when markets opened for commercial theater in the 1600’s. By the 1650’s, opera was a huge industry in Venice, with stages, stars and productions that were the envy of Europe. It was Venetian stage designers who invented mechanized stage machinery, revolutionizing theater with flats and drops and eye-popping spectacular effects. Vivaldi’s Summer is intended for the concert stage—but it’s a kissing cousin to the stage storms that were enormous successes on Venetian-type stages in London (The Tempest, 1674) and Paris (Alcyon, 1706).

“A dramatic tour-de-force like Summer is Vivaldi all over, every inch the showman.”
Summer’s most vivid special effect may well be human, though. Of all of the Seasons, Summer is the grandest showpiece for Tempesta’s virtuoso concertmaster Emlyn Ngai. It may have been Vivaldi himself back in the day, pulling off those spine-tingling runs during one of the “must-see” personal appearances in Venetian theatres that thrilled the locals and astounded the tourists.

Summer still succeeds with audiences. Even given our present-day sensory glut of super-sized FX, we respond with all our being to Vivaldi’s fiery solos and knock-out writing for strings.

Vivaldi knew how to put on a show.

Time to grab the popcorn, hunker down and prepare to be thrilled by Antonio Vivaldi’s 300-year-old blockbuster.

Summer is just around the corner.

Anne Schuster Hunter is a writer and art historian in Philadelphia. She teaches creative writing at Temple University Center City. Valuable assistance to this essay was provided by Emma Haviland-Blunk and Rachel Hottle through the Swarthmore College Extern Program. Many thanks to Molly Hemphill.