When compared to the operas of Handel, Vivaldi’s operas are still relative rarities either on stage or in concert. There have been a handful of performances in UK in the last five years, of which I’ve heard two, Ottone in Villa and L’Olimpiade. It was his late opera Griselda (1735) that the newly-formed opera company Opera Settecento chose for their London launch at the Cadogan Hall. As the name suggests, their aim is “to bring to the stage forgotten works from the 1700s” such as operas by Pergelesi, Scarlatti, Caldara, Porpora, Vinci and others.

Erica Eloff © Sussie Ahlberg
Erica Eloff
© Sussie Ahlberg

This ambitious venture is led by the youthful Musical Director, Thomas Foster. It is a brave move in a competitive market – there are other companies out there such as the Early Opera Company and La nuova musica that are already exploring similar repertoire (although maybe more early repertoire) and it will be interesting to see how Opera Settecento are going to carve out their own niche and develop their audience.

Judging from this concert performance of Griselda, Opera Settecento certainly made a very promising start. The singers represented both experienced and emerging talent – contralto Hilary Summers in the title role and countertenor Andrew Watts led the cast which included the excellent Handelian soprano Erica Eloff (it’s wonderful to see a winner of the Handel Singing Competition develop into a such a stylish Baroque singer) and rising tenor Ronan Busfield who sang the challenging role (not only technically but also in terms of characterisation) of Griselda’s apparently cruel and scheming husband Gualtiero. The remaining roles were taken by soprano Kiandra Howarth, currently Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, and Tom Verney, an exciting young countertenor.

In particular, I was very impressed by the orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Foster. For Griselda, Vivaldi used a string-only orchestra except in two arias where two horns are added. Foster has assembled a committed and stylistically unified group of period string players who seemed well-drilled and totally fluent with Vivaldi’s often demanding writing. His choice of a “top-heavy setup” i.e. lots of violins but single viola, cello and double bass seemed to work well and it created a transparent and nuanced string sound that reminded one of the sound world of Vivaldi’s concertos. If Opera Settecento can keep up this level of playing in future performances, I will certainly look forward to hearing them again.

A brief plot summary: The people of Thessaly are dissatisfied with King Gualtiero’s wife Griselda because of her lowly background as a shepherdess. To convince them of her noble heart, Gualtiero hatches up a (frankly absurd) plot with his ally Corrando in which he pretends to leave her and marry a new queen (who is actually his daughter Costanza assumed dead at birth). Despite this ordeal, Griselda remains faithful to Gualtiero and they are finally reunited. The work is in typical opera seria form with succession of recitatives and arias. Some cuts were made to the recitatives but didn’t affect the plot.

As Griselda, warm-voiced Hilary Summers sang with assured skill and passion, but I felt her voice sounded rather matronly and lacked the vulnerability of Griselda. Ronan Busfield tackled the demanding role of Gualtiero with poise as well as flair, although there was some tightness in the top notes. The star of the evening was Erica Eloff as the king’s courtier Ottone, in love with Griselda. Originally written for a male soprano, it is the most virtuosic role in the opera and she sang with agility and brilliance. Her bravura aria “Vede orgogliosa l’onda” from Act I was show-stopping.

Kiandra Howarth (Costanza) is also a lyric soprano but hers is a more powerful voice. She excelled in the lyrical arias such as her Act III aria “Ombra vane” which was sung with beautiful legato phrasing. She and her lover Roberto, sung by Andrew Watts, made a good pairing and created the drama in the recitatives as well as in the arias. Tom Verney played the scheming Corrando with relish. With a little more control, he should develop into an attractive countertenor.

From the harpsichord, Foster directed the orchestra and the singers with lively tempos and pacing. Interestingly, his directing style is non-interventionist and he hardly “conducts” except at the beginning of the arias or at transitions, and mostly he plays the continuo with both hands and seems to energise the players from within the ensemble (perhaps with a larger orchestra he might need to be a bit more assertive). Also I noticed he didn’t make much eye-contact with the singers (who were standing behind him at the front of the stage). I’m sure they had rehearsed enough and there was strong trust between him and the singers, but there were a few points where a little eye-contact would have helped. But overall, the performance brought out the best of Vivaldi’s operatic and orchestral writing and I for one am looking forward to the next instalment of Opera Settecento.