The operas of the “Red Priest” (which number close to 50) were practically unknown until the last quarter of the 20th century. Since the start of the millennium, however, people can’t seem to get enough, as more and more recordings and productions are made of his operas. The premiere of Farnace in 2014/15 was a curiosity for two reasons: first, this was the piece’s Hungarian premiere, and second, because this was the first occasion a Vivaldi opera appeared on the Budapest Opera playbill.
Farnace was one of its composer’s favourite operas. The plot revolves around the King of Pontus, recently defeated by the Romans, whose mother-in-law despises him and conspires against him. Intrigue, politics, a death sentence, love, manipulation, and hatred abound as the characters find themselves in the most extreme of situations and traverse an enormously wide range of emotions.
Some time before the start of the opera, Mitridate, king of Pontus, wishing to seize the realm of Queen Berenice of Cappadocia, had set up an ambush for woman. As she was a widow, he had her son killed and prevented her from entering into a second marriage (which this time would have been for love). Mitridate was later evenually defeated by Roman troops, and after his death, he was followed on the throne by his son Farnace, who then fell in love with the one womngan he should not have have fallen in love with: Berenice's daughter, Tamiri. He abducted the girl and married her. In revenge, Berenice has formed an alliance with the Roman troops and has sworn to do everything in her power to destroy Farnace and her faithless daughter.
Setting: Heraclea, Asia's mightiest harbour and the great shield of the East
Despite facing defeat against the Roman legions, Farnace is not willing to give up the fight. His wife, Tamiri pleads with him to think of his wife and young sons as well, so that they won't end up as slaves of the Romans. Farnace hears her out and then makes her promise that, should they be about to succumb to the Roman forces, she will take the child's life as well as her own. Farnace's request presents a horrible dilemma for Tamiri.
Berenice arrives at the city, followed by the forces of Roman proconsul Pompeo. The two leaders greet each other and combine their forces: "Death to Farnace!" They storm the city, and Farnace's troops are forced to retreat. His sister, Selinda, is captured and immediately attracts two suitors: Aquilio, the prefect of the Roman legions, and Gilade, Berenice's captain. Selinda lets both men get their hopes up so that she can later take revenge on both oppressors.
In defiance of Farnace's command, Tamiri conceals her son in the great mausoleum of Mitridate and prepares to kill herself, although the appearance of her mother, Berenice, puts a stop to this. Berenice demands her grandson, the heir to Farnace's throne, while Tamiri demands the return of her husband. Berenice places her daughter in his hands and asks the Roman to help find Farnace's child. Tamiri feels renewed faith that mighty Rome is trembling over a little boy, and proudly enters into captivity. Pompeo acknowledges the great nobility of Tamiri's soul.
Gilade and Aquilio implore Selinda to choose between them, but the woman cleverly avoids making a selection. Still unable to lay her hands on either Farnace or her grandson, Berenice instructs Gilade to commence the blood sacrifice by killing Selinda. The captain reveals his secret love to the queen, whose simple response is that love has no place in a warrior's heart: there will be no pity for the girl. Gilade resolves to defy Berenice for Selinda's sake.
Farnace is at the mausoleum of the kings of Pontus. His plan is to murder the two tyrants, and then kill himself. But then Tamiri, whom he thought was dead, suddenly appears and greets her husband joyfully. Farnace cannot believe his eyes, and demands that Tamiri explain why she didn't kill herself as she promised. She confesses to her husband that not only is she alive, their son is as well. Farnace is assailed by remorse for ordering his innocent little son's death.
Berenice is about to raze the mausoleum of Farnace's ancestors to the ground, which has Tamiri in terror, since her child is still hiding inside. After uselessly attempting to convince her mother to desist with her plan, she is forced to call to the child to come out. Berenice renounces her daughter, but seizes her grandson as a prisoner. Farnace, who has been secretly observing the events, also reviles and renounces his wife for her deed.
Gilade promises Selinda that he will help get revenge on the queen.
Farnace rushes to the palace, planing to do in Berenice. His sister pleads with him to leave the task to her.
Berenice and Pompeo lead out Farnace's son, whose fate will be decided by Rome. Berenice's thirst for revenge is unquenchable: she wants blood.
Aquilio promises Selinda that he will kill Pompeo for her sake.
Berenice is bargaining with Pompeo: since in spite of his promise, he has not killed Farnace, he should at least slay his son, in exchange for which he shall receive half of his kingdom. Right then, Tamiri is brought in. She also proposes a deal to the Roman proconsul: she offers half of Farnace's kingdom in exchange for sparing her young son's life. Pompeo does not desire what is offered, but is deeply moved by Tamiri's noble conduct and decrees that the woman's son is to be returned to her.
Farnace is wrestling with his emotions, but finally relents towards his wife. Tamiri departs joyfully.
Selinda urges on first the vacillating Gilade, and then Aquilio, to do what they had earlier promised to do.
Aquilio and Farnace – unbeknownst to each other – are stalking Pompeo in order to kill him, but the Roman leader catches them at the final moment. Aquilio tells a lie, claiming that he had been trying to save Pompeo, since he saw that the other man was planning an attack on him.
Farnace takes advantage of the fact that neither of them recognise him by telling them untruthfully that he is one of Berenice's bodyguards. Pompeo, however, senses a trap and asks the queen, who has just entered, to confirm that the man is really in her service. Berenice immediately recognises Farnace and orders her men to kill him a once. The soldiers fall on Farnace, but just then Tamiri rushes in, begging them to have mercy on her husband. Even so, Farnace would prefer death.
Meanwhile, Aquilo is tormented by terrible remorse for having betrayed Farnace.
Led by Selinda, Gilade and a group of other soldiers rush into the hall with weapons at the ready. Selinda frees her brothers from his chains and places a sword in his hand. Farnace is preparing to kill Berenice, but Tamiri attempts to talk him out of it. In order to defend herself, Berenice suddenly pulls her daughter in front of her and holds a dagger to her heart. Pompeo also seizes Farnace's son and makes ready to stab the child. Farnace places his life in Berenice's hand, but the queen has an unexpected change of heart and pardons him. "Live and rule in happiness, and may all of my luck and greatness be yours." Pompeo also gives his blessing to the peaceful reconciliation. As the chorus sings at the end: peace returns with lilies and roses, and the torch of hatred is lost among a thousand flames of love.