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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'Griselda'

Austin Pederson (supernumerary), Amanda Majeski (Ottone), Paul Groves (Gualtiero), and Joaquin Gonzalez (supernumerary) in Griselda,
Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
Baroque opera was such a fluid thing, with aria substitutions, recycling of music, and florid improvisation, that there is often no such thing as an authoritative version of the score for such works. So one can hardly complain that Peter Sellars changed Vivaldi's Griselda so much in his goofy production at Santa Fe Opera, the first major staging of this beautiful work in the United States. One can certainly complain, however, that Sellars, indulging yet again his regrettable proclivity toward over-heated philosophizing, makes such a hash of the opera, both musically and dramatically. The derisive laughter that rippled through the house on Thursday night, reaching the ears of Sellars a few rows in front of me, spoke volumes about the results. (For much more background on Griselda, see my preview article and CD review.)

What a double shame that the direction detracted from some first-rate musical performances, beginning with the elegant, polished Costanza of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, whom we have admired before in recital and on stage. Her knockout performance of the opera's biggest aria, Agitata da due venti, was both sure and appropriately rapid-fire, albeit at a slightly slower tempo than one hears from other singers, while there were a few problems with sustaining pitch in Ombre vane. David Daniels brought a sharp, slightly nasal edge to Roberto, and a rising countertenor, Yuri Minenko, was a graceful Corrado. Tenor Paul Groves had the right rage-filled tone as Gualtiero, but the demanding melismas of some of the arias, especially his first one (Se ria procella sorge dall'onde), were not in the voice. Conductor Grant Gershon led an ensemble of modern instruments (nice work by the horns in their couple of arias) plus two harpischords (one used by Gershon to accompany recitatives) and a theorbo, with generally fine results, in spite of a tendency to slow down the ends of B sections almost to a dead stop. All of the singers added beautifully conceived and sometimes thrilling embellishments to the da capo repeats, although it did little to assuage cranky audience members who thought it was only about repeating the same texts over and over again.

Isabel Leonard (Costanza) in Griselda, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
Contralto Meredith Arwady was a vocal knockout in the title role, her brilliant fioriture and viscous chest voice channeling the unpredictable nature of the role's creator, Anna Girò. Unfortunately, Sellars directed her in all sorts of ridiculous gestures, rolling on the floor, waving and wrenching her arms, running about, which for a woman of her size was less than dignified. Hopefully, singers will eventually turn against this sort of direction from Sellars, who has too often made singers look silly (just ask Drew Minter). This was lamentably true of soprano Amanda Majeski, whose Ottone was costumed as some sort of hipster gang-banger, waving around a revolver and doing some corny dance moves in her moment of triumph (Dopo un'orrida procella). Worse, she did not really have the vocal goods for this difficult music, either (listen to Simone Kermes on the Naïve recording for a comparison).

Other Reviews:

Anthony Tommasini, One Cruel King, by Way of Vivaldi (New York Times, August 10)

George Loomis, Griselda, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 8)

Kyle MacMillan, Santa Fe's adventuresome operas include "Griselda" and "Wozzeck" (Denver Post, August 7)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Vivaldi’s music and inspired cast trump bewildering plot in Santa Fe Opera’s “Griselda” (The Classical Review, August 5)

Mark Swed, Vivaldi's 'Griselda' revived in Santa Fe (Los Angeles Times, August 1)

Griselda at Santa Fe Opera (The Opera Tattler, July 30)

John Stege, The Good Wife (Santa Fe Reporter, July 20)

James M. Keller, SFO premiere of Vivaldi's 'Griselda' misfires (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 17)
It is true that this medieval story, about the faithful patience of a maligned wife, does not make much sense to a modern viewer. Boccaccio placed it last in his Decameron, at the end of a series of ten days in which the members of the Brigata told stories back and forth about the virtues of men and women, or lack thereof, in love and life. The story is told by one of the men, Dioneo -- on a day when another of the men, Pamfilo, "rules" as king -- and it exalts Griselda and shames her husband, Gualtiero, the Marchese of Saluzzo (a town in the Piedmont region). Having no thought of taking a wife until he is enjoined to do so by his vassals, Gualtiero marries a beautiful but common girl. Convinced he has no way to determine if she will be true and obedient to him always, he tests her devotion to him throughout the story, telling her that he has killed her children, pretending to take a new wife (who is, in truth, their own daughter, now in her teens), and forcing Griselda to work in the castle like a servant. She bears it all with humility, earning the love and respect of all, and is reinstated as Gualtiero's wife. The story was widely known, receiving adaptations by Geoffrey Chaucer (the Clerk's Tale in Canterbury Tales) and Charles Perrault (a rhymed conte called Griselidis, here in English translation).

The tale did not make much sense to an 18th-century mind either, so when Apostolo Zeno adapted the story as a libretto, he made the Italian marchese into the king of Thessaly, motivated to his brutal actions by the disapproval of his subjects for his low-born wife rather than just his own caprice. When Antonio Vivaldi was assigned the libretto for his first opera at Venice's Teatro San Samuele, he and his protegée Anna Girò, who created the title role, did not think much of Griselda's vaunted patience either. Carlo Goldoni recounted in his memoirs how Vivaldi asked him to make a new aria for Griselda, in which she does not patiently accept her husband's abuse but rails against it. Add to these many layers of meaning what Sellars saw in the opera, claiming that his staging aims to return the story to
Boccaccio, who regarded his parable of grace in the face of injustice and patience in a time when wrong appears to be triumphant, as a passion story in which the cleansing and redemptive power of suffering elevates a woman to the transcendent role of savior, healer, reconciler, and the divinely beloved.
Who knows on what evidence Sellars makes this claim: it is enough to understand that Sellars believes it. He makes the point by having Griselda, at the low point of her humiliation, sing the opening movement of Vivaldi's Stabat mater instead of Vivaldi's aria for that moment, Son infelice tanto.

Austin Pederson (supernumerary), Joaquin Gonzalez (supernumerary), Amanda Majeski (Ottone), Meredith Arwady (Griselda), Isabel Leonard (Costanza), Yuri Minenko (Corrado), Paul Groves (Gualtiero), and David Daniels (Roberto)in Griselda, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
Graffiti artist Gronk returned to Santa Fe with another colorful abstract mural (imagery of brush fires and rain localized the work) that served as backdrop, unfortunately clashing in eye-squinting ways with the loud costumes of Dunya Ramicova. The men in bright-colored tuxedos looked like they were attending a high school prom circa 1978. Thessaly was some sort of police state, ruled by the wealthy, signified by Gualtiero marching around in a polo uniform and boots. Sunglass-sporting bodyguards stood solidly to either side of Gualtiero, and machine gun-toting commandos regularly terrorized other characters, including Griselda, only then to release her from her handcuffs and go away. Laughter erupted at the sight of Griselda easily disarming Ottone by taking his gun, and at the sudden reversal of the opera's conclusion, which Sellars undermined by having Griselda, in her blue apron (like those worn by employees at Walmart), just stay on stage sweeping in disbelief during the final chorus, again to much laughter. Is Sellars harping on the string of class discrepancy, the marginalization of an immigrant underclass, the inequality of the sexes? The staging is too incoherent for us to know.

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