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Opera review: Vivaldi's 'Griselda' revived in Santa Fe

August 1, 2011 |  4:45 pm

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Six years ago, Peter Sellars came to Santa Fe to remake a troubled opera. As both director and de facto dramaturge, he provoked the rewriting of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar,” helping turn it into one of the most warmly embraced and internationally celebrated American operas of the last decade.

This summer, Sellars’ job for Santa Fe Opera has been a surprising shaping and making meaningful sense of another musically promising but dramatically quixotic opera. Once again Sellars invited the Los Angeles artist Gronk to paint a spectacular backdrop that dominates the desert amphitheater, giving the feeling that the opera is taking place within living art.

But this time the challenge is very different, as are the stakes and the audience’s expectations. And this time, Sellars’ approach is more radical and controversial.

The opera is Vivaldi’s “Griselda,” written 270 years before the revised “Ainadamar.” Europe has lately been Vivaldi-crazy. Long forgotten operas are regularly being recorded and given sexy stagings. A “Griselda” restoration seems intended by Santa Fe to spearhead a Vivaldi opera revival on our side of the Atlantic.

Sellars excises the more outlandish scenes and arias, but he nevertheless fabricates a wild show. Characters dressed in extravagant New Mexican-influenced costumes by Dunya Ramicova and bizarre lighting effects by James F. Ingalls (both regular Sellars collaborators) play off Gronk’s painting. The singing is a consistent joy, with emerging singers in possibly breakthrough roles. Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera, conducts a musically memorable performance.

Sellars, however, takes Vivaldi to places the composer never imaged his operas might go. And so far, this “Griselda” has not had widespread audience or critical support. Many left at intermission Friday night, the third of six performances. The reviews, thus far, have tended to be dismissive, feeling Sellars has gone too far.

In fact, what Sellars has tried to do is save Vivaldi from himself. It’s a big job.

The composer, who wrote more than 500 concertos, claimed to have cranked out 94 operas, although the majority have disappeared. Most were clearly thrown together, with a substantial amount of recycled music.

But Vivaldi knew his proto-Las Vegas Venetian public and its voracious appetite for display. He knew his singers –- the contralto for whom he wrote the title role of “Griselda” was said to have been one of his mistresses. He knew how to entertain. The vocal writing is breathtakingly virtuosic and there are arias in “Griselda” of startlingly musical beauty.

The opera is a mess, though. Many of those great arias come from earlier Vivaldi scores. Taken at face value, the libretto, which is based on the last story from Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” would turn most modern stomachs.

In a ruse to convince his people that his peasant-born wife is a worthy queen, Gualtiero, the king of Thessaly kicks Griselda out of his house, slaughters (he says) their daughter, Costanza, and decides to take a young bride (who really is said daughter). Although subjected to a variety of public humiliations, one more degrading than the next, the good wife Griselda remains shockingly faithful to her husband and king. In the end, she is returned to the throne.

The production is chaotic, expressing the agitated state that most of the characters are in most of the time (there is no real love music). Gronk’s painting is an arresting collage of images, some relating to the frightening New Mexico fires this summer. Ingalls’ lighting highlights different aspects of the painting, and it also has a role in character development when it is used to saturate the stage in certain colors or drain the color of costumes. Everything is in unsettling visual play.

In the midst of this nightmarish world, Meredith Arwady, a young contralto with deep notes that feel like a force of nature, portrays Griselda as Jesus-like, enduring her suffering with spiritual fortitude. Sellars even goes so far as to replace Griselda’s trite last aria with something religiously rich -– the heavenly opening of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater.

The evening’s other revelation was another young singer, Isabel Leonard. Her creamy and fluid mezzo-soprano and transfixing calm stopped the show in each of Costanza’s three arias, the opera’s greatest music.

The rest of the cast was made up of two more emerging singers and two veterans. The mezzo Amanda Majeski (as Ottone, who pursues Griselda) and the countertenor Yuri Minenko (as Gualtiero’s confidant, Corrado) are the other newcomers who lit up the stage.

Meanwhile, tenor Paul Groves expertly conveyed an uncertain king undone by politics. David Daniels, who had missed the premiere because of food poisoning, was his outstanding self Friday as Roberto, Costanza’s lover.

Vivaldi was not another Handel. But there is tremendous music to be found in Vivaldi’s operas if not cohesive drama. And by putting its trust in a trio of L.A. artists -– Sellars, Gronk and Gershon -- Santa Fe Opera allowed "Griselda" to bloom, like a wildflower, in the desert.

RELATED:

Opera review: Out of failure, a new victory

Opera review: Peter Sellars stages Handel's 'Hercules' in Chicago

Vivaldi, the dramatic

-- Mark Swed, from Santa Fe, N.M.

Photo: Isabel Leonard (center) and Meredith Arwady (kneeling), with the rest of the cast of Vivaldi's "Griselda" and Gronk's painting in the background. Credit: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

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