Isabel Leonard and Jason Abrams
in Santa Fe Opera’s “Griselda”
Photos by Ken Howard
Opera by Antonio Vivaldi
Text by Apostolo Zeno
Conducted by Grant Gershon
Directed by Peter Sellars
Scenic design by Gronk
Costume design by Dunya Ramicova
Lighting design by James F. Ingalls
Santa Fe Opera
July 16 through Aug. 19, 2011
Imagine if Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was tanking because the polling numbers showedthat Michelle was not First Lady material. Would he dump her in order to win? That’s the 14th-century premise behind the rarely performed Vivaldi opera “Griselda,” directed by Peter Sellars, which opened July 16 at Santa Fe Opera. Not only does the King get rid of his wife, in this production he humiliates her, over and over again, in a display of sadistic behavior that could only be rationalized, in baroque Italy, through an analogy to Christ’s persecutions. Griselda, then, was the female Jesus Christ.
Place this narrative in a 21st-century operatic context, with surprisingly robust and dramatic music by Vivaldi (if you roll your eyes at the thought of listening for the millionth time to “The Four Seasons,” you’re in for a pleasant surprise), a cast featuring not one but two countertenors, a wild setting dominated by a Guernica-like mural by the Los Angeles artist Gronk, and a typically contemporized point-of-view by the director, and you have a very odd and compelling night at the opera. This is not your mother’s “Traviata.”
The opera has had its evolution over the centuries. Vivaldi’s version, in 1735, was gussied up by the radical Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, who took on an earlier libretto by Apostolo Zeno based on the last in a collection of medieval tales in “The Decameron,” by Boccaccio. In 2011, director Sellars has also taken liberties with the opera. He described in a letter handed to critics before the opening that his version was as a “transmuting… a performance edition that extends Goldoni and Vivaldi’s bold approach to the drama they inherited.” The director cut three acts down to two, eliminated entire recitatives (the dramatist Goldoni hated opera and wrote a play with music that is almost completely aria-free), cut existing arias in order that all the main characters should have a similar number of them, and inserted an extraneous Vivaldi work (the opening movement of his Stabat Mater) because he felt sorry that the music for the title character was inferior. Talk about poetic license. (You can hear Sellars discuss his concept in the video interview below.)
“Griselda” is of the historical era of castrati. Fortunately, modern countertenors have been able to step in without any of the surgical necessities of earlier times. How surreal at first, however, is the aural experience of love being declared musically between the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, singing Costanza, and Roberto, sung on opening night by Jason Abrams (seen recently in the New York City Opera’s production of “Esther”) a last-minute substitution for the eminent countertenor David Daniels, who had reportedly suffered food poisoning. One has to admire the unstrained ability to enter the highest register possible in the male voice (without ascending into Bee Gees-like falsetto), but, truth be told, the countertenor sound offers neither the power of a lyric tenor, nor the transcendent effect of an operatic soprano. Consider the musical experience a historical oddity (like pants roles for women) and settle in for a new experience.
There is no chorus in this opera; the half-dozen singing characters are kept busy—very busy. Early on, tenor Paul Groves, playing the King, Gualtiero (photo, left), was pushed to his limits by a furious barrage of notes from Vivaldi (which perfectly set up the angry dramatic situation). Soprano Amanda Majeski, playing Ottone, a nobleman, was dressed like a rapper, and rushed around kidnapping the young son of Griselda and the king, simultaneously in love with the banished queen-in-limbo (contralto Meredith Arwady, left). Meanwhile, the second contertenor, Corrado (Yuri Minenko), the king’s brother, has raised a daughter stolen at birth from Griselda (who was told she was dead). Only he and the king know the true identity of the young trophy bride brought in as a fitting substitute for the queen.
Sellars’ reputation as genius/enfant terrible is on display here in all its gaudy dimensions. Gun-waving guards, military costumes for the king and his young son, and a leading lady who is forced to mop the palace floor dressed in a polyester uniform right out of a fast food industry catalogue (complete with nametag) put a stamp of irony on the production that doesn’t sit easily within a world of baroque musical ornamentation. The young bride Costanza is costumed in a 15-year-old’s “quinceañera” party dress (photo, right), and the men are attired in lime green and worse. It’s all vaguely border stereotypical, with nods to “Evita” and “Miami Vice.”
All this color resonates against the swirling images of an almost overpowering mural surrounding the playing space. But, again, the grand divide between musical and theatrical time settings, which is a Sellars trademark, seems to offer more distraction than edification. If this story were indeed to take place in modern times, no royal court in the world would allow the kind of humiliations heaped on Griselda. At least in the context of its time, one could make a case that the drama of the opera typified the way women were treated. At least the King didn’t cut off Griselda’s head, right?
(For an entertaining diversion, watch Divoboy’s lip-sync of Cecilia Baroli singing the most famous aria from the opera, “Agitata da due venti.”)