22 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Antonio Vivaldi – GRISELDA (C. Hulcup, C. Saunders, M. Allan, D. Hansen, R. Harcourt; Pinchgut LIVE PG002)

Antonio Vivaldi: GRISELDA (Pinchgut LIVE PG002)

ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): Griselda, RV 718—C. Hulcup (Griselda), C. Saunders (Gualtiero), M. Allan (Costanza), D. Hansen (Ottone), R. Harcourt (Corrado), T. Cole (Roberto); Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard [Recorded ‘live’ in City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, on 30 November and 3 – 5 December 2011; Pinchgut LIVE PG002; 2CD, 131:14; Available from Amazon, directly from Pinchgut Opera, and from major music retailers]

Of the hundred novelle in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone, none has proved more irresistible to artists than that recounting the tribulations of ‘patient Griselda.’  Recycled in as many languages as were read in Renaissance Europe, the put-upon Marchesa—promoted to Queen in Apostolo Zeno’s frequently-used (and liberally-adapted) libretto—likely reached Lope de Vega and Shakespeare via Petrarch’s Latin translation.  Reacting to this aspect of their collective artistic heritage, composers of the Italian Baroque identified the natural appeal of Griselda as an operatic heroine, and Zeno’s fine libretto provided the impetus for several excellent scores, one of the most memorable of which is Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Griselda, the title rôle in which provided a vehicle for a surprisingly stylish Baroque outing for Mirella Freni before the revival of interest in Baroque music.  The famous Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni applied his deft tinkering to Zeno’s work to produce the libretto for an opera commissioned for Venice’s Teatro San Samuele: the resulting work was Antonio Vivaldi’s Griselda, which was premièred on 18 May 1735, when the composer’s three-decade career as one of the leading exponents of Italian opera was entering its final phase.  Not surprisingly to those acquainted with the vocal music of his maturity, Vivaldi conceived the title rôle in Griselda for his muse of sorts, Anna Girò, and in Griselda Vivaldi created one of his most theatrically effective operas; and one in which his music is admirably consistent both in style and in the level of inspiration.  If the Griselda molded by Vivaldi and Goldoni is a less moping gal than Zeno’s or Boccaccio’s incarnations of her, she—and Vivaldi’s opera—is all the better for it.  Almost no records of contemporary reactions to Griselda have survived, but the chronology of Vivaldi’s career confirms that the opera was instrumental in restoring the wavering fortunes of the enterprising Grimani family: another Vivaldi opera, the lost Aristide, a further collaboration with Goldoni, was staged at the family’s Teatro San Samuele in the autumn of 1735.  None of Vivaldi’s operas has claimed a prominent place in the standard repertory, but Mark Gaal’s 2011 production for Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera proved that Griselda is worthy of revival and, when performed with the level of musical and dramatic intensity heard in this recording, can be an enthralling ride.

Pinchgut Opera’s production enjoyed the services of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, Australia’s foremost period-instrument ensemble, and conductor Erin Helyard, a world-renowned specialist in Baroque opera.  Equal and in many cases superior to their European and North American counterparts, the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of the Antipodes—twenty-one in number, including Maestro Helyard at the harpsichord—play brilliantly in this recording, responding to the challenges of Vivaldi’s music with absolute command of the idiom.  Performances in which ensembles deliver Vivaldi’s formulaic string figurations as arbitrary sawing are far too plentiful, but the string players of the Orchestra of the Antipodes audibly seek the meanings with which Vivaldi laced his semiquavers.  Among uniformly excellent performances, Laura Vaughan’s playing of the viola da gamba is superb, and the mastery of period-style horns by Darryl Poulsen and Lisa Wynne-Allen is impressive, with none of the honking and hooting that passes for historically-informed wind playing in many performances.  Lutenists Simon Martyn-Ellis and Tommie Andersson contribute fascinatingly to the continuo on theorbo and Baroque guitar.  Maestro Helyard shares harpsichord duties with Stewart Smith, and their combined efforts provide a rhythmically vital, reliably thoughtful foundation upon which the orchestral players construct potent edifices in sound.  Maestro Helyard conducts with the confidence of a man who knows that his understanding of his task is complete: none of Vivaldi’s quicksilver changes of dramatic pace or rhythmic speed bumps finds him unprepared.  Presumably at the suggestion of la Girò, Vivaldi’s music for the title character is littered with pregnant pauses, and Maestro Helyard navigates these dramatically critical devices with a sure hand.  It is a credit to his close collaboration with the cast that he adopts an appropriate tempo for every aria, giving lyrical outpourings ample time to expand meaningfully and taking the showpiece bravura arias at bracing speeds—all without ever leaving any of the singers snatching at breaths or gasping behind the beat.  Performances of Baroque operas can succeed despite poor orchestral playing and conducting more easily than those of later repertory, but a very good performance can be elevated to a great one by playing and conducting of the quality exhibited by the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Maestro Helyard in this recording.  It is also of vital importance that Pinchgut LIVE’s recording staff have done their musicians proud with a ‘live’ recording that palpably captures the energy of staged performances without sacrificing balance between stage and pit: stage and audience noises are never bothersome, even during stretches of secco recitative, and the recording method ensures that singers are always audible.

The casting of Pinchgut Opera’s production of Griselda reveals an encouragingly rich vein of Australian talent.  Countertenor Russell Harcourt as Corrado has only one aria, ‘Alle minacce di fiera belva’ in Act One, and recitative in which to make his mark, and make his mark he does, with firm, passionate singing that convincingly conveys Corrado’s dedication to protecting Griselda and her son, who is mercilessly used as a pawn in Ottone’s quest to win Griselda’s favor at any cost.  The rôle of Roberto, who loves Costanza, Griselda’s daughter and presumed rival for Gualtiero’s—actually her father!—affection, is sung by another excellent countertenor, Tobias Cole.  Familiar from performances of both Baroque and modern repertories on three continents, Mr. Cole sings Roberto’s arias ‘Estinguere vorrei la fiamma ond’io sospiro’—a beautiful expression of his frustrated despair over seemingly losing his beloved—and ‘Che legge tiranna’ with poised tone and pointed delivery of text, qualities that also serve him well in his live-wire singing of recitatives.  Corrado and Roberto suffer the most from cuts to the score, both characters losing arias that were sung in the opera’s première—one for the former, two for the latter—but Mr. Harcourt and Mr. Cole seize every opportunity left to them with the sure instincts of practiced stage creatures.

The deception enacted at Costanza’s expense is hardly less cruel than the trials endured by Griselda.  Summoned to cast off her lover Roberto in order to become the consort of Gualtiero in Griselda’s stead, not knowing that the king and his discarded queen are her parents, Costanza is torn between duty—a king’s hand in marriage is not a thing to be rejected, after all—and devotion.  This ambiguous disbursement of emotional resources is aptly portrayed by Miriam Allan’s performance.  Focusing foremost on an insightful traversal of her character’s dramatic journey, beginning with the slightly dumbfounded exasperation of her first aria, ‘Ritorna a lusingarmi la mia speranza infida,’ and ending with the eventual revelation of her father’s duplicity and his blessing of her union with Roberto.  Costanza has one of the opera’s most demanding simile arias, ‘Agitata da due venti,’ and Ms. Allan negotiates the tricky divisions unhesitatingly.  The aria ‘Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori’ also inspires Ms. Allan to powerful, stylish singing, her upper register gleaming attractively.  In recitative, Ms. Allan proves an intelligent, knowing figure: the tenderness of her exchanges with Griselda suggests that the daughter feels an instinctive connection to her mother, and there are in Ms. Allan’s vocal inflections hint that she suspects before all is revealed that some trickery is afoot.  Equally adept at tackling strands of coloratura and sustaining long-breathed lyrical phrases, Ms. Allan is a touching, musically fulfilling Costanza.

Gualtiero is a complicated character whose actions are uncompromisingly political.  Bowing to the Vox Populi, which questions the lowly-born Griselda’s worthiness to share his throne, Gualtiero faces the necessity of securing his reign by subjecting his wife to the shame of public denunciation.  Perhaps he never doubts his wife’s loyalty and knows that her devotion will prevail over her trials and the objections of her incredulous subjects, or perhaps he, too, requires convincing that she is truly deserving of his royal favor.  However his motives are interpreted by the singer who performs the rôle, he must work harder than the opera’s other characters to win the audience’s sympathy.  Tenor Christopher Saunders does not succeed in making Gualtiero’s course of action more palatable to modern sensibilities, but his bold singing gives Gualtiero a credibly regal profile.  Anyone who perpetuates the myth that Richard Strauss was antipathetic to the tenor voice is apparently unfamiliar with the tenor rôles in Vivaldi’s operas.  Gregorio Babbi, who created prominent rôles in operas by virtually every Italian composer of any significance in the first half of the 18th Century, was obviously an amazingly gifted singer: Vivaldi’s music for Gualtiero certainly suggests that he possessed a voice of considerable range and a technique that enabled him to achieve feats of consummate virtuosity.  In Gualtiero’s first aria, ‘Se ria procella sorge dall’onde,’ Mr. Saunders hits the ground running.  His upper register does not always project with the clarity for which Mr. Saunders obviously works, and his intonation occasionally falls victim to the nasty tricks that Vivaldi’s music holds in store for him.  He is at his best in ‘Tu vorresti col tuo pianto,’ in which Gualtiero capably depicts the sadness that lurks behind the biting irony of his rejection of Griselda’s pleas for death.  In Gualtiero’s eventual clemency and reunion with his wife and children, Mr. Saunders is moving, the straightforward approach to the rôle that he has employed throughout the performance coming graciously to fruition.

The rôle of the amorously predatory Ottone was created by soprano castrato Lorenzo Saletti, whose professional career was launched by his appearances in Griselda.  Presumably owing to the insufficiency of Saletti’s fledgling technique to meet the demands of ‘Scocca dardi l’altero tuo ciglio,’ Vivaldi cut the aria and replaced it with a simpler alternative.  In the music of Vivaldi, simplicity is relative, and even in its ‘simplified’ form Ottone’s music was daunting and covered a tessitura of more than two octaves, extending to soprano top C.  Previous commercial recordings of Griselda have entrusted Ottone to sopranos—in one instance, a singer who seasons her performance with piquant but inauthentic excursions above top C—and even a tenor, but Pinchgut Opera score a triumph by reuniting the appropriate vocal range with the proper gender in the person of Sydney-born countertenor David Hansen.  A vibrant presence in recitative, Mr. Hansen takes the performance by storm in Ottone’s first aria, ‘Vede orgogliosa l’onda,’ in which he unflinchingly engages in throat-to-throat combat with typically head-turning coloratura.  Here and throughout the performance, his upper register is a source of endless amazement, his top notes soaring.  ‘Scocca dardi l’altero tuo ciglio,’ the aria that defeated Saletti, rivals the most fearsomely difficult arias in the Baroque repertory, and it defies belief that any countertenor would attempt it, particularly in live performances without the ‘safety net’ of retakes.  There is no denying that Mr. Hansen’s technique is tested by the aria, but he faces its terrors with the determination of an Olympian, and with the tone focused with laser-like intensity he conquers the aria with charisma and bravura swagger to burn.  ‘Dopo un’orrida procella,’ a cathartic celebration of calm after the storm, draws from Mr. Hansen expansively lyrical singing that fully reveals the pure beauty of his voice.  Dramatically, Mr. Hansen strides through the performance with the aural presence of a Hollywood leading man.  Occasionally, Mr. Hansen slightly pushes the voice, but a performance of Ottone’s music in which nothing is shirked, nothing is compromised, and nothing jeopardizes complete enjoyment of an astounding piece of singing is an invaluable achievement.

Having trained as a violinist before devoting her studies to singing perhaps gives mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup a special link to the music of Vivaldi.  Whether or not she feels any particular identification with Vivaldi, the connection with Griselda’s predicament that she displays in this performance is heartening.  It is not surprising that a rôle written for Anna Girò received from Vivaldi careful attention to the character’s dramatic development and the lion’s share of the best music in the score.  Like Händel’s Rodelinda, Vivaldi’s Griselda is unrelentingly put upon but is no shrinking violet.  Interestingly, Griselda’s arias are, in general, briefer than those of the other characters, and they are more emotionally direct: she, too, has her moments of poetic aloofness, but for the most part she says what she means without muddling her expression with metaphors.  The climax of her suffering is reached in the aria ‘Ho il cor già lacero da mille affanni,’ in which Vivaldi’s skills as a composer and dramatist are engaged at the most exalted level of his career.  Ms. Hulcup’s skills as a singer are engaged, too, her voice drenched with the pain, indignity, and disbelief inspired by the circumstances to which she finds herself reduced.  The exhaustion and despair that gush out of a passage as brief as ‘Sonno, se pur sei sonno’ are depicted with an anguished delivery of text that does not impede the solemn loveliness of Ms. Hulcup’s singing.  Her ornamentation is mostly stylish, her musicality slightly undermined in a few instances by over-adventurous cadenzas that unnecessarily climb to notes that are just beyond Ms. Hulcup’s comfort zone.  The voice is slightly ungainly but grows in strength and flexibility as the performance progresses.  Above all, Ms. Hulcup engagingly uses Vivaldi’s vocal hurdles and Goldoni’s poetic conceits to create a portrait of a woman ennobled as much by her integrity in suffering as by the love of a king.

If all performances of Vivaldi’s operas were as successful as this Pinchgut Opera recording of Griselda, perhaps these scores would enjoy greater prominence beyond the ranks of those companies that specialize in Baroque repertory.  The ways in which this recording shines are many: welcome as an unimpeachably stylish performance of one of Vivaldi’s finest operas, it is equally appreciable as a celebration of the fantastic wealth of Australia’s musical institutions.  Music is the universal language, of course, and despite the concerted efforts of European ensembles to maintain exclusive dominance of historically-informed performances of Baroque music, Vivaldi with an Aussie accent proves tremendously enjoyable.  Even in this Bicentennial year, why fret over another inadequate performance of a Verdi score when it is possible to hear the music of Vivaldi performed so smashingly?