TURIN, Italy — Although Antonio Vivaldi's name is synonymous with seaswept Venice, an accident of history has deposited the greatest collection of his music here, by the foothills of the Alps. On an upper floor of the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino, in metal cabinets behind a fireproof door, is Vivaldi's personal archive of clean autograph copies of music never published in his lifetime: some 450 works, including 110 violin concertos, 39 oboe concertos, more than a dozen operas and a raft of sacred music.
Between his death in 1741 and the 1930s, posterity knew little more of Vivaldi than the instrumental works published during his lifetime in collections given opus numbers 1 through 12, including "The Four Seasons" (Op. 8, Nos. 1-4). As for the rest, he once told an English traveler that he made better money by selling copies directly than by working through publishers.
Shortly after Vivaldi's death a close relation sold the archive to the Venetian aristocrat Jacopo Soranzo, from whom it passed to Giacomo Durazzo, a nobleman of Genoa and a patron of Gluck. While still in the possession of the Durazzo family, the collection was carelessly split in two, and early in the 20th century one half was donated to a monastery outside Turin.
Alberto Gentili, the expert called in for an evaluation, quickly deduced that the cache, though a treasure, was incomplete. (For one thing, whole acts of operas were missing.) Roberto Foà, a banker, bought the available material for the Turin library in memory of a son who had died in infancy. Eventually Gentili tracked down the remainder and persuaded the owner to sell. This time it was Filippo Giordano, a wool merchant, who put up the money. The acquisitions were announced in 1930.
"It was front-page news all over the world," said Susan Orlando, an American administrator, performer and scholar who has come to know the archive very well. "And then, nothing."
What good are scores locked in a vault? In the late 1990s the musicologist Alberto Basso, who had cataloged the Vivaldi holdings, sold the French label Opus 111 on the utopian proposition of recording the entire collection on some 100 CDs. (The complete works of Beethoven on Deutsche Grammophon run to 87.)
Before the Vivaldi Edition took off, Opus 111, sold to Naïve, another boutique label, and there it has flourished. Among the three dozen remarkable volumes already on the market are a collection of string concertos with Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano ("Concerti per Archi"), sacred music with the soprano Sandrine Piau and the Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone ("In Furore") and a door-stopping set containing nine full-length operas (three CDs each, each opera also available individually). To be released this week are settings of the Gloria and oboe concertos from Alfredo Bernardini and his ensemble, Zefiro.
Just past the halfway mark, the Vivaldi Edition is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2015. Hard times notwithstanding, Naïve remains committed to the project. "But I spend a lot of time fund-raising now," Ms. Orlando said. "That's something I never had to do before."
Ms. Orlando, 56, grew up in Honolulu, studied composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston and got hooked on the Baroque the day she picked up the exotic viola da gamba. Having presented Baroque festivals in America and Europe for more than 30 years, she happened to settle in Turin in 2001, where her old friend Mr. Basso promptly reeled her in as director of the Vivaldi Edition. The fit was just about perfect: Ms. Orlando had the languages, the contacts, the musicological expertise, the administrative skills.
"Alberto calls me the ambassador," she said recently while conducting a whirlwind tour of the city's Baroque architecture. "He knew that I'm capable of organizing things, and he gave me carte blanche." At the Naïve offices in Paris, her nickname is Miss Vivaldi.
Behind a stately facade built in 1873 for the stables of the Prince of Carignano, the National Library is a no-frills barracks from the 1950s. Too poor to provide gloves for readers handling rare books and manuscripts, the institution does not even require their use. "Vivaldi said he could compose faster than a copyist could copy," Ms. Orlando said, turning autograph pages with unprotected hands to reveal swift, fluent strokes that ripple evenly across the staffs, virtually uninterrupted by strike-outs or corrections.
Born in Venice in 1678, the Red Priest (as Vivaldi was called on account of the red hair he was born with and the religious orders he took as a young man) was long associated with that city's Pio Ospedale della Pietà, the ensemble of musically gifted orphan girls he trained that became a top tourist attraction. Later he traveled widely, perhaps as far as Prague. Having fallen on hard times, he died a pauper in Vienna.
Broad-brush accounts of Vivaldi's life dwell on his vanity, boastfulness and ill humor. "Like Beethoven he was a person of huge talent, bent on making as much of that talent as he could and bitter at not getting the credit he knew he deserved," Ms. Orlando said. "He came from common people, and he was dealing with princes. Was he disagreeable? I can't think of any stories of Vivaldi throwing soup in a servant's face, as Beethoven did. You have to take what's said with a grain of salt, because it's all supposition."
When Vivaldi's music re-emerged in the 20th century, the composer Luigi Dallapiccola, a stern modernist, said that Vivaldi had written not hundreds of concertos but the same concerto hundreds of times, a remark echoed by Stravinsky. Someone coined the phrase wallpaper music.
"It can seem that way when the musicians have no idea where the music comes from, of the physical instruments it was written for, of the phrasing that was used in the period," Ms. Orlando said. "But even then, the music is so strong that it comes across, especially in fast movements, which pull you right in and drag you right through. The biggest difference is in slow movements, where long, beautiful arches keep opening and closing, where there's time for subtleties of shading, for the poetry and depth. The advantage of informed performances is that they go so much further than the midcentury kind."
Even professionals who have reason to think they have heard it all may be surprised. Julian Fifer, a former cellist, the founder of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and now a manager and impresario, tells of the epiphany he experienced 10 years ago when a record producer sent him an unmarked tape.
"I had played Vivaldi with Alexander Schneider," Mr. Fifer said recently in New York. "I had played Vivaldi with Isaac Stern. And I always felt the music was square and boring. Now here was all this great material, with a simply tremendous wealth and variety of color and expression. I thought I was listening to a new composer. I realized that we were clueless."
The musicians who opened Mr. Fifer's ears to Vivaldi and his contemporaries were the violin virtuoso Giuliano Carmignola, the conductor Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra, at the time under exclusive contract to Sony Classical. (Mr. Fifer now manages them worldwide.) Fortunately for Ms. Orlando there were other stars — or stars in waiting, like the conductors Jean-Christophe Spinosi and Giovanni Antonini — to record with.
From the start the Vivaldi Edition caught the music media's fancy and began receiving prizes. Even the album covers played a part: eye-catching portraits by the French photographer Denis Rouvre showed models, mostly female, in a severe high-fashion style. "Naïve isn't a company of bureaucrats," Ms. Orlando said. "The owners are creative people, and they give great liberty. The idea was that the covers would be artworks in themselves."
The momentum of the Vivaldi Edition has grown to the point that the big names too want in. Though Jordi Savall, renowned master of the viola da gamba and conductor, has a highly successful label of his own in Alia Vox, he asked to reissue his recording of Vivaldi's opera "Farnace" on Naïve and is on board for a second opera.
Thanks in large part to the Vivaldi Edition, Vivaldi's stock has risen so sharply that his name is sometimes attached to music that is not his. In 2006 the obscure "Ercole su'l Termodonte," conducted by Alan Curtis at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, was billed as "reconstructed" Vivaldi. Only those who read the fine print discovered that Vivaldi's music for all the recitatives and many arias was lost, and that the violinist and scholar Alessandro Ciccolini — very much alive — had composed them out of whole cloth.
Issues of authenticity may have been blown aside in this case by the spectacle of the unblushing tenor Zachary Stains, as Hercules, who prowled the stage dispatching virtuoso roulades in a lion's skin and billowing cape, as exposed as any Greek hero in marble.
While Ms. Orlando takes a laissez-faire attitude toward such interventionist endeavors, she does object to false advertising of "lost Vivaldi masterpieces," especially now that so many real ones are out there for audiences to discover.
Having come to know Vivaldi so well, could she sum up his appeal in a single sentence? "I have to put it all in words?" she asked. "I can't play the music?" But a split second later she had it: "Vivaldi wrote music that people listen to and it makes them glad to be alive."