Vivaldi’s Griselda in Venice – Ann Hallenberg, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Michela Antenucci; directed by Gianluca Falaschi; conducted by Diego Fasolis

Griselda – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno adapted by Carlo Goldoni [sung in Italian with Italian surtitles]

Gualtiero – Jorge Navarro Colorado
Griselda – Ann Hallenberg
Costanza – Michela Antenucci
Roberto – Antonio Giovannini
Ottone – Kangmin Justin Kim
Corrado – Rosa Bove

La Fenice Orchestra
Diego Fasolis

Gianluca Falaschi – Director, Set and Costume Designer
Alessandro Carletti & Fabio Barettin – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 29 April, 2022
Venue: Teatro Malibran, Campiello del Teatro, Cannaregio, Venice

The narrative of Vivaldi’s opera Griselda (1735) will be familiar to readers of classic literature since it appears as the story of patient Griselda in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and was used from that source by Chaucer as one of his Canterbury Tales. Although very little of Vivaldi’s operatic output is widely known today, this work contains one of his few famous arias ‘Agitata da due venti’ and, continuing the theme of prominent literary treatment, it is the only collaboration between the composer and his younger Venetian contemporary Carlo Goldoni, as they worked on an older libretto by Apostolo Zeno.

Despite the irony, perhaps, of Gianluca Falaschi’s controlling the direction, stage and costume design in this production, he brings out the implied feminist dimension of the opera and declines to collude exactly with the story’s overt moral of Griselda having tests imposed upon her by a snobbish, misogynistic court and populace, and passing them to be belatedly proved worthy to be the wife of the king of Thessaly, Gualtiero, despite her humble origins as a shepherdess. Falaschi notes that Goldoni went on to write La locandiera (‘The Mistress of the Inn’) as a ‘sort of proto-feminist manifesto’; and Vivaldi, as a long-standing music master at the largely female orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, must also have entertained a high degree of sympathy with the social and political position of women in relation to the male-dominated hierarchies of the time. Accordingly, Falaschi sees Griselda’s trial as the manifestation of ‘toxic masculinity’ in seeking to subject women to its ideals, and her triumph as breaking the vicious circle of that patriarchal exercise of power. Hence, she is already the victim of that at the start of the opera, as she appears to hold no authority or power as queen, but sits at her treadle sewing machine, like a meek housewife, with several other women doing likewise. Not only does that ironically evoke her background as a shepherdess whilst she spins wool, it also seemingly invokes another patient wife in literature, Penelope, weaving at home and chastely awaiting the return of Odysseus.

The wood into which she retreats, once exiled from the court, is not merely the Arcadian, rural idyll of her upbringing (as in the original scenario) but here something much more elemental and complex, like the setting of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, with all its psychological undertones and symbolisms. The boorish behaviour of the courtiers encroaches into that world – bringing their drunken, lascivious carousing, their paraphernalia, and also their rubbish – and when she is pronounced sufficiently virtuous at the end of the trials, she rejects the court in the final coro by returning to the woods, reunited with her son who was purportedly threatened with death as one of those tests. Given the generally simple, uncluttered staging throughout the performance, that conclusion speaks movingly and compellingly of this, her real – and active, not simply passive – act of heroism as she opts out of that chain of expectations, and presumably will influence the young Everardo to cultivate an entirely different set of social and personal relations when he succeeds Gualtiero. 

Initially restrained musically, as befits the title role’s subservient character, Ann Hallenberg skilfully develops a deeper vein of expression as the performance progresses. It is not, vocally, the most difficult role in the opera, nor what is typically expected of a lead part, as Vivaldi wrote it for Anna Giro, a singer said to be of limited talent but whom he admired. Hallenberg vindicated the intentions of the composer and Goldoni in setting an opera around such a generally undramatic and passive role by drawing out nuance and a more impassioned expression instead. Vocal fireworks are reserved more for Costanza – revealed to be Griselda and Gualtiero’s daughter who had been taken away at birth but who now, years later, is brought back, ostensibly to become Gualtiero’s bride once Griselda is disowned as another test to the latter’s loyalty. Michela Antenucci generally rises to the occasion wonderfully. Although she has a tendency to swoop in her vocal lines at first, she comes to inhabit the role with coquettish vivacity as she creates a flighty persona, rather in pointed contrast with Griselda, as she seems happy to play on her lover, Roberto’s jealousy once she is espoused to Gualtiero, before they realise that this is just one of the trials.  During ‘Agitata da due venti’ – executed fairly broadly – she is literally framed within an ornate, gilt border, as well as dressed up in some extravagant gear, presumably meant to satisfy the leering gaze of the male court.

Jorge Navarro Colorado sounds as suave as he looks in Falaschi’s sartorially dapper presentation of the tenor role of Gualtiero. Rather than forceful or imperious, Colorado lends the king a vocally persuasive lustre that subtly underscores the duplicity and hypocrisy of the virtues the court claims to espouse. Kangmin Justin Kim stands out for his supple virtuosity as he attains an evenness and power throughout his impressive range, which is really that of a male soprano than a typical countertenor, depicting Ottone’s opportunism and sly tricks in attempting to defeat Griselda’s constancy by making amorous overtures to her. Antonio Giovannini’s leaner but equally lithe voice well expresses Roberto’s wailing despair at Costanza’s apparent abandonment of him in favour of the king.

After a lively account of the Sinfonia with the select ensemble from La Fenice Orchestra, Diego Fasolis avoids plunging headlong into Vivaldi’s succession of often succinct arias but leads a thoughtful account of the opera. If the instrumental aspect tends to take second place to the vocal line (more so than in Handel’s, say) he still cultivates a considered, and often unhurried, character for each, though there is urgency and vitality where necessary. Horns are too raw and inaccurate on their first appearance, but they whoop splendidly in their second, providing thrilling counterpoint to Kim in ‘Dopo un’orrida tempesta’.

 Vivaldi’s late opera is done proud, then, at the theatre which stands on the site of one formerly owned and managed by the powerful Grimani family, who had largely avoided working with the composer on his operatic endeavours in his own lifetime, until rivalries subsided such that he was permitted to mount Griselda at another theatre of theirs, the now vanished Teatro San Samuele.

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