Antonio Vivaldi is certainly well known as an instrumental composer (Four Seasons, anyone?) but virtually unknown as a creator of operas. It’s not that he didn’t do them, it’s just that the ones he did disappeared from the operatic stage long ago.
Perhaps with the intention of helping spark a Vivaldi operatic revival, the Santa Fe Opera is presenting the composer’s Griselda this summer. The company is giving it its best shot, bringing in a fine group of singers, Baroque-familiar conductor Grant Gershon, and superstar director Peter Sellars and his design team.
Alas, to little avail. Thursday night’s performance in the Crosby Theatre was painfully tedious, plodding along earnestly as audience members glanced furtively at their watches and in many cases headed for the parking lot at intermission.
Sellars obviously realized beforehand that a difficult task awaited him. He tinkered with Vivaldi, trimming the opera and importing non-operatic music written by the composer. In fact, the most beautiful stretch of music during the three-hour-plus performance was from Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater. Without that, the title character would have had nothing memorable at all to sing.
That was a positive step, but other Sellars innovations were doubtful. He seemed to be saying, “Folks, this is not really a Baroque opera; this is the 21st century.” Sets and costumes (by Gronk and Dunya Ramicova) were mostly garish and modernistic. A couple of ominous presidential Secret Service types silently observed the action. Assault teams perhaps inspired by the Navy Seals burst in occasionally, threatening people with their automatic weapons though never actually firing.
The music, however, remained firmly in the 18th century. There were long stretches of recitative and numerous long solo arias with extremely repetitive texts and mostly in moderate-to-slow tempos (one aria by Costanza, the title character’s daughter, may have set a Guinness record for length). Vivaldi’s instrument music is often lively; one longed for a little more of that. With a couple of countertenors and a conventional tenor in the three principal male roles, the pitch level was unusually high.
The plot is preposterous — though that never really hurts in opera, of course. Griselda is the low-born wife of King Gualtiero. He puts her through a series of ordeals to test her fidelity before finally accepting her again. Various complications along the way, including the reappearance of a daughter thought dead and the machinations of a young man with a crush on Griselda, are all resolved happily.
Santa Fe’s fine cast includes alto Meredith Arwady as Griselda, tenor Paul Groves as the king, soprano Amanda Majeski (who sings beautifully despite some silly tricks that Sellars has her perform) as the young man with the Griselda crush, soprano Isabel Leonard as Costanza and countertenors David Daniels and Yuri Minenko as a pair of princely brothers.
Photos by Ken Howard