Operatic women tend to suffer by nature, but none has more indignities heaped upon her than poor Griselda. For some reason, her story from the Decameron appealed to several Baroque composers, including Antonio Vivaldi, whose 1735 opera is enjoying a rare revival at the Santa Fe Opera.
The Thessalian King Gualtiero’s subjects never accepted Griselda, a former shepherdess, as their queen, so Gualtiero devises a scheme to prove her worthiness by pretending to cast her off. He dispatches her back to the country and arranges to marry another, who turns out to be their lost daughter, Costanza. Ultimately, Griselda’s unflinching loyalty to Gualtiero wins the people’s esteem, as if doglike fidelity is what counts in a woman. (To be fair, some believe that the Decameron story was deliberately intended to make one squirm.)
By the end of the opera, Griselda is working as a servant in Gualtiero’s palace, and director Peter Sellars rather naughtily leaves her alone onstage pushing a broom while the festive final chorus resounds off stage. The production relies on a colourful mural of primitive design by the artist Gronk and wacky costumes by Dunya Ramicova for visual energy, with Sellars drawing on various means to keep the da capo arias lively without contradicting their essential Affekt or mood. During an aria, for instance, the singer may unexpectedly direct lines to another character, thereby giving a new slant to the words.
Griselda is sung rather tremulously by Meredith Arwady. Paul Groves struggles with the coloratura of Gualtiero’s first aria, but otherwise the singing is excellent, especially from Isabel Leonard as Costanza, who has the best arias, and Amanda Majeski as Ottone, Griselda’s hapless suitor who hopes win her on the rebound.
Two countertenors also do well: the estimable David Daniels as Costanza’s lover Roberto and the young Ukrainian Yuri Minenko as Gualtiero’s confidant Corrado. The conductor Grant Gershon leads a stylish, expressive performance, but tends to drag in the slower arias, which works against Costanza’s sublime “Ombre vane”.
The work itself, based on an old libretto refashioned by the young Carlo Goldoni, is something of a slapdash affair for which Vivaldi recycled a number of arias. But most of them are worth one’s attention, and the experience overall confirms that an opera seria need not necessarily attain Handelian artistic heights to appeal to a modern audience.
This article is subject to a correction