Friday 19 September 2014

Opera Settecento in Vivaldi's Griselda

Cast of Opera Settecento's performance of Vivaldi's Griselda at Cadogan Hall
Cast of Opera Settecento's performance
of Vivaldi's Griselda at Cadogan Hall
Vivaldi Griselda; Opera Settecento, Thomas Foster; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 18 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Bravura performances galore from new opera company in Vivaldi's rare gem

Opera Settecento (musical director Thomas Foster, artistic director Miranda Jackson) is a new company which has been set up to focus on Italian opera seria from the 18th century. They launched themselves with a dazzling concert performance of Vivaldi's Griselda at Cadogan Hall  on 18 September 2014. This showcased a new edition of the work which restored Vivaldi's original (and more difficult) first thoughts. The cast was an interesting mix of youth and experience, with a cast including Ronan Busfield, Hilary Summers, Kiandra Howarth, Erica Eloff, Tom Verney, and Andrew Watts. Thomas Foster directed from the harpsichord.

Vivaldi wrote Griselda in 1735 (when he was 57), for performance in Venice. At his request the title role was sung by his protegee Anna Giraud which means that the role of Griselda was written for a contralto and the character's arias are more simple and song-like (owing to Giraud's technical limitations). The remainder of the cast have the more complex pieces. The libretto was based on an older libretto but it was updated for Vivaldi by the young playwright, Goldoni. Goldoni would go on to have a distinguished career in the theatre as was as developing an important sequence of opera buffa with Galuppi. The libretto has rather an over reliance on simile arias (in act one alone we have a helmsman knowing the sea, someone buffeted by winds and a good hunter with a wild beast).

Thomas Foster directing Opera Settecento's performance of Vivaldi's Griselda at Cadogan Hall
Thomas Foster
Griselda is relatively compact (around 190 minutes of music) with a plot which, in opera seria terms, is quite simple partly because there is no sub-plot. The opera has had some degree of success in modern times. It was last done in the UK in 1983 by Buxton Festival, but there have been performances in Santa Fe, Australia (by Pinchgut Opera) and by the Aradia Ensemble. There have also been a number of recordings. But it is only recently that the critical edition has been used, with Vivaldi's original arias; at the first performance Vivaldi had to substitute simple versions of some arias. Also, opera companies have been very reluctant to cast the role of Ottone in the right clef, opting instead for keeping the male gender and using octave transposition. Vivaldi wrote it for a soprano castrato and whilst some counter-tenors can manage the role, they are rare. Opera Settecento opted for the right clef and gender flexibility, casting soprano Erica Eloff in the role. The role of Roberto was also written for a soprano castrato, but it lies a fraction lower and was sung in the concert by Andrew Watts.

The plot comes from Boccaccio's Decamoron and I have often suspected that the opera's modern popularity has to do with the piece's relative compactness, simplicity and familiarity of plot rather than any intrinsic merit over Vivaldi's other operas. Listening to it, we were very aware that Vivaldi's music had a constant personability and liveliness which rather belied the more awkward corners of the plot. I suspect that in Vivaldi's Venice this was a terrific evening in the theatre, with the audience enjoying the toe-tapping quality of the music rather than its theatrical depth. Whilst I enjoyed the opera, it was rather more Andrew Lloyd Webber than Michael Tippett and I have to wish that the company had launched with something seriously neglected like one of Leonardo Vinci's operas. That said, the performance was superb and the singers all rose to the challenges of their roles.

Hilary Summers sang the role of Griselda, the shepherdess who has married a King and who is being put aside. In this version he isn't testing her, but proving her worth to his people. Summers brought great character and personality to Griselda, giving her tuneful arias a heavy dose of vivacity and intelligence. She made the character rather more strong minded and less docile than might seem in the libretto, but that was no bad thing in such a static opera. As well as four arias, Summers got an extended accompanied recitative, which Vivaldi used in a key point of the drama to devastating effect. Griselda's husband, Gualtiero was sung by tenor Ronan Busfield. His three arias were all admirably done, with his opening simile aria quite brilliant technically. I found Busfield's voice rather characterful but not ideally relaxed for the role, though he brought the character of Gualtiero across as more bad-tempered than nasty.

Griselda and Gualtiero's daughter, Costanza, has been smuggled away (Griselda thinks she is dead) and brought up by Corrado. The action takes place on the day when Gualtiero is putting Griselda aside to marry Costanza. But Costanza is in love with Roberto, Corrado's younger brother.

Costanza was sung by soprano Kiandra Howarth. She brought bright and fluid tones to her three arias, using her vibrant lyric voice to great effect in both the boisterously bravura and the melancholy arias. Costanza's love object is Roberto (Andrew Watts); his seems to be the other major role as he gets four arias. Written for a soprano castrato, the role required Watts to manage his voice somewhat and not every sound he made was lovely. But it does sit quite high and the results were highly expressive. Roberto isn't the most dynamic character, and his first two arias were gently lyric rather than dramatic. Only at the end of act two did we get a bravura dramatic number when Watts could pull all the stops out. Surprisingly there isn't a duet for Costanza and Roberto, though Vivaldi did end act two with an imaginative trio for Costanza, Griselda and Gualtiero with the two women's gently lyrical part interrupted by Gualtiero.

Roberto's elder brother (and Costanza's guardian) was sung by the young counter-tenor Tom Verney. He gets a bit short changed, only getting two arias instead of three (or four). But his first aria is a corker, a simile aria about a wild beast and a hunter, Vivaldi brings on two horns to add to his string ensemble to devastating effect (here played by Anneke Scott and Joe Walters). Both Scott and Walters clearly relished the rather raspy nature of Vivaldi's horn writing and they provided a dramatic backdrop for Verney's thrillingly bravura performance in the aria. It clearly taxed him, but he gave a vibrant performance putting his all into it and did not disappoint.

Griselda is loved by Ottone (Erica Eloff) who spends the opera alternately plotting and cajoling trying to make Griselda marry him. Eloff, dressed in jacket, trousers and tie, gave a poised and stylish performance as Ottone. The freedom of her voice throughout the range, its power and evenness, vastly compensating for the necessary gender  switch; you sensed that no counter tenor could have that freedom and colour above the stave. She started with a finely sung simile aria, and all of her arias were beautiful and some achingly so. Her two later arias were both bravura numbers with lots of passage-work and interesting wide leaps in the vocal line.

The small instrumental ensemble had nine string players and two harpsichords, with Foster directing from the harpsichord. Apart from a couple of moments of untidiness they gave a crisp and involving performance, clearly relishing Vivaldi's imaginative and idiomatic writing for strings. If we got rather too many of his throbbing string accompaniments in the arias, at least the orchestra throbbed in an enticingly stylish manner.

A little more consideration should have been given to dress. The men, in particular, had a rather motley and varied selection and hardly seemed to be performing in the same opera! The glossy programme book included the full libretto and translation (there were no surtitles), but at £7 it was rather steeply priced; something simpler and functional might work better.

This was an engaging performance which transcended the concert format, and gave us some superbly bravura performances. It bodes well for Opera Settecento's future plans. They will be performing at the London Handel Festival on 17 March 2015 (probably a Handel pasticcio) and return to the Cadogan Hall on 16 September 2015 (probably with a Pergolesi opera seria).
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