‘He did it here, he did it here, he did right here!’. Such were Vivaldi’s cries as Goldoni rose to the challenge thrown at him by the composer to rearrange an aria in Zeno’s libretto of Griselda to better suit the talents of Vivaldi’s protégé, Anna Girò. As recorded in Goldoni’s earliest account of meeting the Red Priest, despite receiving a frosty reception from the composer, the young poet impressed Vivaldi enough with this improvised feat to allow him to ‘murder Zeno’s drama’.
Written for the Teatro San Samuele in Venice and first performed in 1735, Zeno’s libretto, adapted by Goldoni, is based on an episode from Boccaccio’s Decameron which tells the story of the sadistic Marquis of Saluzzo who decides to put his wife’s fidelity to the test as his people are unhappy that he’s married a commoner. Somehow I don’t think we’ll get a reality series out of this from our royals. Despite many vicissitudes, she passes the test and the lovers are reunited. If the original tale has a saving grace it’s that the moral of the story is that into the ‘cots of the poor the heavens let fall at times spirits divine, as into the palaces of kings souls that are fitter to tend hogs than to exercise lordship over men’. Basically, money doesn’t buy you everything including morals and class. The libretto serviced several other composers of the age including Alessandro Scarlatti, Bononcini and Albinoni, and the story itself was taken up in the 19th Century by Massenet in his Griselidis.
Zeno’s version adds changes to the basic outline, moving the action to Thessaly and fleshes out some of the relationships by giving more personality to Griselda’s daughter, Costanza, believed to have been executed by her father, and giving her a lover. Even so, the plot is decidedly thin and you end up thinking that Griselda needs to give Gualtiero a good thump for being such a demanding prat. Although Griselda has been performed in the UK before, at Buxton in 1983, this was the first performance of the new critical edition by Ricordi. As this was a concert performance we were luckily spared the inevitable director interpretation that would end with couples being unable to trust each other at the end of the opera as is regularly and unimaginatively doled out to productions of Cosi fan tutte, Serse and Djamileh to name a few.
As well as the ever present Girò, Vivaldi turned against the conventions of the day of giving the lead male role to a castrato, instead using the young tenor Gregorio Babbi, then aged just 27. That’s not to say that the castrati roles don’t get their own moments of vocal splendour. Lorenzo Saletti was the Florentine castrato entrusted with the role of Ottone and the role is full of extended virtuosic passages and great leaps around the stave that may have proved too much even for the original singer as one of his arias was hastily replaced with a new one, ‘Dovresti esser contento’.
Newly formed group, Opera Settecento, have got off to a cracking start in their proposed mission of reviving forgotten 18th Century dramme per musica, pulling together a fine group of singers and instrumentalists for this performance, led by conductor Thomas Foster. A small string band and two harpsichords provided the main body, with the additional of a pair of horns in two arias. The strings played stylishly throughout, with a sprightly start to the sinfonia and nice growling in the lower register and playfully skitted their way through the schizophrenic, twitchy major-minor accompaniment of ‘Moribonda quest’alma dolente’. Horns brayed away merrily in ‘Alle minacce di fiera belve’ but were a little more temperamental in ‘Dopo un’orrida procella’. Recitatives were well paced, with some scenes being cut in their entirety. Sadly missing was Griselda’s short aria as she falls asleep in Act 2. However, as this was cut by Vivaldi anyway and is adapted from an aria in his Tito Manlio, we’ll have to hope that Opera Settecento will perform that opera in order to hear it.
Gualtiero, taken by Ronan Busfield, discarded the hapless Griselda in a stretch of secco recitative which Vivaldi could have made more effort in composing: for such an important moment, an accompagnato might have been more dramatic or appropriate. Be that as it may, Busfield’s rendition of ‘Se ria procella sorge dall’onde’ displayed a maturity of voice belied by youthful appearances. His Act 2 aria set at a good tempo, perhaps a little too rushed to give the impression that Gualtiero is actually in love with patient Griselda but with the vocal line ending soulfully, Busfield gave a fine performance and I hope this is repeated in his forthcoming performances with English Touring Opera.
Hilary Summers looked a resplendent queen, towering over her husband, singing with style and acting with an almost wicked sense of humour. Her outraged looks at Gualtiero and Ottone at various points could have curdled milk and the ghosts of Hinge and Bracket were never too far away as she peered imperiously at those who added to her afflictions.
Vocally, she brought warmth and humanity to the role though both ‘No, non tanta crudeltà’ and ‘Son infelice tanto’ were inappropriately jaunty considering their texts (that being the composer’s fault rather than the singer’s, of course!). Her entries in the Act 3 trio ‘Non piu regina’ were beautifully placed, contrasting well with the more foursquare entries for Busfield, and it was over far too soon, such were its attractions.
The role of Ottone, a knight who importunes Griselda the moment he thinks she’s on the market, was gifted to Erica Eloff, and it really is a gift, with an exquisite opening aria and two virtuosic tour de forces in the following acts. ‘Vede orgogliosa l’onda’, a long aria in the galant style but quintessentially Vivaldian, has a gossamer fragile vocal line that was tenderly rendered, with heartrending octave leaps sung legato, eventually rising to well above the stave, all perfectly under control by this talented singer. Grazie signora, for that spellbinding lesson. Her other arias were taken with aplomb, hellishly full of notes as they are. ‘Scocco dardi’ with its nearly two and half octave range requirement, from g below the stave to b above was presented fearlessly and some excellent staccati were produced. ‘Dopo un’orrida procella’, with the vocal line effortlessly jumping around two octaves at a time was likewise energetically sung and she made the exercise look easy however, I got the feeling that Eloff could have really let rip in these arias but was carefully restraining her obvious talent.
The other supporting roles were taken by equally impressive singers. Andrew Watts as Roberto, the lover of Gualtiero’s daughter, was in fine voice, displaying clear, incisive notes without recourse to shrieking at the top of the register and produced an even, unforced tone. There was power in the declamation of ‘Che legge spietata’, but as with Eloff, all carefully controlled with no ugly sounds being emitted.
As Roberto’s brother, we had Watts’ pupil Tom Verney, whom I had the pleasure of hearing earlier this year in the London Handel Festival. Although only given two short arias and these in quick succession, he produces a pleasing sound, low notes a little subdued, but with lots of potential and he does at least get one of the arias where the horns get added to the orchestra.
Kiandra Howarth, currently participating in the Jette Parker Young Artists program at Royal Opera House, was Costanza, the daughter of Gualtiero and Griselda, who spends most of the opera believing she has to marry him, unaware that he is in fact her father. Thankfully this gets cleared up in time to lead to the very perfunctory final chorus. She had a less vulnerable tone than Eloff but has clear notes with a well-rounded sound. ‘Agitato da due venti’ was played safe with no ostentatious interpolations and ‘Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori’ displayed a pleasant change of tone between the A & B sections of the aria, ending with a deliciously creamy tone in the reprise.
Opera Settecento have this evening set high standards for their future performances with promises of a Handel pasticcio and a Pergolesi opera seria. They will be concerts worth waiting for.
Photo credits: Alan Black (Foster,) Claire Newman-Williams (Summers,) Sussie Ahlburg (Eloff,) Bill Cooper (Watts,) Clive Barda (Howarth)