Are Vivaldi’s operas impossible to bring off dramatically, or is it that no-one in the modern era has figured out how to do it? In my experience the most successful productions have torn the originals practically to shreds in order to bring out some unstilted dramatic tension. This new production of Griselda in Venice does none of that, but whacks out all the arias in the order in which they were written, but sadly generates little dramatic tension in doing so. It also ignores the rich historical context of the work with the plainest possible staging, and if it weren’t for the singing it would really be an unbearable snooze-fest.

Ann Hallenberg (Griselda) and Jorge Navarro Colorado (Gualtiero)
© Michele Crosera

The story of Patient Griselda is well embedded in western European tradition, with a section in Boccaccio, and a libretto by Apostolo Zeno from 1701 which was put to music by a multitude of Baroque composers, the other best known version probably that of Alessandro Scarlatti.  Vivaldi collaborated in revising the libretto with Carlo Goldoni, a famous Venetian playwright and librettist, although his celebrated wit seems to have got somewhat lost in the shuffle here.

The story is as silly as any, with characters presenting themselves as other than they are, and people behaving quite stupidly whether moral, or dastardly. The programme notes mention the “clamorous twist at the end” but director Gianluca Falaschi did not make this very clear and I was unaware while watching it that Griselda, whose patience is rewarded in the actual libretto by restitution of her position, reconciliation with her long lost daughter and her supposed dead son, is in fact meant to be dead. And the supposed dead son is too, that is, is really dead. I think. Said programme note also observes that “the playwright’s reworking of the pre-existing material is not without the occasional incoherence in the plot” – not helped the slightest bit by Falaschi's production. 

Michela Antenucci (Costanza)
© Michele Crosera

The set in the first part is exceedingly plain, and the modern dress costumes are not much to write home about. Griselda, being of low birth, appears in a plain blue overall, which gets even plainer when she is demoted. We meet her sitting at a sewing machine in a row of women at sewing machines – so she’s doing common domestic labour even before she’s dethroned! – in a plain room with a slatted wall behind, which allows glimpses of greenery to be seen. Halfway through, this wall rises to reveal a much prettier woodsy setting, and a troupe of well-dressed party goers appear, who cavort madly. At first it made for a very nice Midsummer Night’s Dream sensibility, but two of the frolickers are meant to represent the young Griselda and Gualtiero; then there is a gratuitous rape scene and, if we are to interpret this as a propensity to domestic violence, it does not fit well with the story. And then there are proliferating teddy bears...

Michela Antenucci (Costanza), Jorge Navarro Colorado (Gualtiero) and Ann Hallenberg (Griselda)
© Michele Crosera

The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice on period instruments was led by noted Baroque conductor Diego Fasolis in a rather short back and sides way. The most rewarding aspect was the singers. Ann Hallenberg was a natural for Griselda, but in this case it was her dramatic chops that were most compelling, projecting her grief, fury and fortitude in the face of unfathomable cruelty. It was something of a pity that Griselda’s arias did not allow her to demonstrate her incredible flexibility and exquisite fioriture. Jorge Navarro Colorado was a creditable and credible Gualtierro who, despite his narrative centrality and pretended meanness, doesn’t have a lot to do vocally, but does it with a nice smooth tenor. Costanza was sung by young soprano Michele Antenucci with bright tone and accuracy. Her first aria was somewhat laboured, seeming longer than it was (refer Mark Twain), but she certainly picked up the pace for this show’s big hit, “Agitata a due venti”, with a great rendition marred only slightly by a loss of consonants.

Kangmin Justin Kim (Ottone)
© Michele Crosera

Three more alto roles rounded out the principals. Costanza’s true love, Roberto, was sung by Antonio Giovannini, projecting the character’s steadfast nature with very nice even tone. Rosa Bove had the small part of Corrado, Roberto’s brother, who has only two arias; “Alla minacce di fiera belva” started a little underpowered, but gained more traction in the da capo, with a nice cadenza; but there was something a bit strange about “La rondinella amante” when she seemed to ramp up the vibrato. American-Korean countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim was Ottone. He has a quite high tessitura, almost sopranista, and displayed bright coloratura fireworks in each of his three arias, with an impressive descent into chest in the first and wowing the crowd with the inevitable crowd pleaser “Dopo un’orrida procella”, with its paired horns, wild leaps and bravura writing. I would also like to put in a word for the staunch non-singing portrayal of young Everardo by Alessandro Bortolozzo.