Vivaldi's long-lost opera returns to Prague after 278 years

After hunting the missing manuscript down in a German archive, Czech conductor revives 'Argippo'

A long-lost opera by Antonio Vivaldi was to have its first performance in centuries last night. Argippo, discovered by a Czech musician as he rummaged through an old archive of anonymous scores, was being staged at a castle in Prague, the city where it had its premiere in 1730. Fittingly, it will be conducted by Ondrej Macek, the man who found the manuscript, and played by his Baroque Music Ensemble Hofmusici.

Vivaldi, called by contemporaries "the Red Priest" for the colour of his hair, is known these days, to all but serious lovers of Baroque music, for a single work: The Four Seasons. However, he was a prolific composer who produced more than 500 concertos, 73 sonatas, numerous pieces of sacred music and 46 operas. One of them, Argippo, opened in the Palace of Count Spork in the centre of Prague 278 years ago. The Czech capital was then a city of arts with some of the best music of the time, often performed by the continent's most prominent singers and musicians.

Mr Macek, a 36-year-old harpsichordist and conductor, began his search in the autumn of 2006. Sifting through European archives, he discovered that the troupe of Italian singers and musicians who first performed Argippo in Prague later moved on to Regensburg, Germany. He headed for the Bavarian town, and began looking in its archives. The historical booklet from the opening night that included the libretto was his only clue. "I went for the section called 'anonymous' because I knew it surely was not listed under Vivaldi," Mr Macek said. "When I saw the text of the first aria that was identical to the one I knew from Prague, there was no doubt I had it."

Indeed, it was Vivaldi's music – the original score of Argippo and a good reason to celebrate. But Mr Macek, who is more musician than archivist, went one step further and decided to reintroduce the opera in Prague. First, it was necessary to re-create the missing parts of the score.

Only about two-thirds of it have survived the centuries, and Mr Macek used other arias from Vivaldi to fit the preserved text. "I used music from operas he wrote at the time, shortly before and after the date of the premiere, and sometimes they [the arias] fit really perfectly," he said. Soon, Argippo, the opera "of passion, love and trickery" in an Indian ruler's court, was ready for a new opening night.

This time, Mr Macek and his Hofmusici orchestra opted for Prague Castle, the seat of the Czech presidency. Argippo comes back to life in the 16th-century Spanish Hall in the castle's northern wing, and is performed by 13 singers and 24 musicians.