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ClassicsOnline Home » VIVALDI: Griselda
Vivaldi’s Griselda, one of more than twenty operas, is based on a story retold in Boccaccio’s Il decamerone about the testing of Griselda’s patience and virtue by her royal husband through a series of cruel trials. The sense of drama that permeates many of Vivaldi’s more programmatic works, such as the Four Seasons, is very naturally carried over into his operas, especially with the use of so-called ‘simile’ arias, in which an emotional state is compared with various natural phenomena. Several very fine examples can be heard in Griselda, including Costanza’s extraordinary ‘Agitata da due venti’ in Act Two; the text compares love and duty with two contrary winds, and the setting is correspondingly wild, with fierce fioriture and wide leaps.
By David Denton
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Griselda, RV 718 (1735)
Dramma per musica in Three Acts
Libretto by Apostolo Zeno (1668-1750), revised by Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793)
(Performing edition prepared by Kevin Mallon)
Gualtiero, King of Tessaglia (Thessaly) - Giles Tomkins, Bass
Griselda, His Wife, the Queen of Thessaly - Marion Newman, Mezzo-soprano
Costanza, Daughter of Griselda and Gualtiero, Princess of Thessaly - Carla Huhtanen, Soprano
Roberto, Prince of Atene (Athens) - Lynne McMurtry, Mezzo-soprano
Corrado, Roberto's Brother - Jason Nedecky, Baritone
Ottone, Noble Knight of Thessaly - Colin Ainsworth, Tenor
Everardo, son of Gualtiero and Griselda - Silent role
Opera in Concert • Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director
Aradia Ensemble • Music Director/Conductor: Kevin Mallon
Dramatic Advisor and Italian coach for production: Virginia Reh
In 1740 Antonio Vivaldi travelled to Vienna in the hope of having at least one of his operas performed during the 1741 Carnival. The death of Charles VI in October 1740, however, and the subsequent closing of the theatres put paid to any such schemes. Vivaldi nevertheless decided to stay on in Vienna. Less than a year later he too was dead. What thoughts must have been racing through the mind of his famous protégée, the mezzo-soprano Anna Girò, who with her sister Paolina had accompanied il prete rosso on many previous journeys, and who was now, as she walked slowly from the Spitaler Gottesacker where Vivaldi had been given a pauper's burial, bereft of not only her mentor but, as contemporary rumour had it, her lover?
Girò could have taken some comfort from the fact that the journey was not entirely wasted: Vivaldi's opera L'oracolo in Messenia was performed at the Kärntnertortheater in the 1742 Carnival. Nevertheless it was a pitiful end for such a gifted violinist and one of the most influential composers of the first half of the eighteenth century.
Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4 March 1678, and received instruction on the violin from his father Giovanni Battista, who was a professional violinist at San Marco and sometimes opera impresario. Vivaldi trained for the priesthood, but soon gave up saying Mass, citing health reasons (he suffered from bronchial asthma). In September 1703 he was appointed maestro di violino at one of Venice's four orphanages, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, and proceeded to raise the profile of this already famous institution's all-female musicians by supplying them with superior instruction and an extraordinary supply of music, both instrumental and vocal. Although there were periods where Vivaldi held no official position there, his association with the Ospedale was to continue, in some form or another, for the rest of his life.
Vivaldi soon became involved in managing the Teatro San Angelo, one of the more modest Venetian opera houses; his own career as an opera composer was launched with the première of Ottone in villa at Vicenza in May 1713. Soon his skills both as a composer and virtuoso violinist were much in demand, necessitating journeys throughout Northern Italy and beyond: Rome, Mantua (where he was maestro di cappella da camera to the Hapsburg governor Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt), Florence, Ferrara, Prague and Vienna.
When Stravinsky said "Vivaldi did not write 400 concertos; he wrote one concerto 400 times", he was not far wrong. These days we put the figure closer to 500, but the essential point (despite Stravinsky's original import) is that fluency in any language is completely reliant on formula: the art is in the variation. This applies just as much to Vivaldi's operas as it does to his instrumental music. His extended use of ritornello form, whereby a refrain is restated tutti in different keys between modulating episodes featuring a soloist, is a dominant feature of his concertos that, in modified form, provided a model for his elaborating the basic da capo aria.
More importantly, the sense of drama that permeates many of Vivaldi's more programmatic works, like the Four Seasons, was very naturally carried over into his operas, especially with the use of so-called 'simile' arias, in which an emotional state is compared with various natural phenomena. The resulting dramatic context provided an excuse for word-painting of the most picturesque kind that, at least in the earlier operas, operated at every level: rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and texturally.
Vivaldi is known to have written more than twenty operas; the figure is more than doubled if pasticcios (featuring music by composers like Leo, Hasse and Pergolesi) are included. The basic formula here is the three-act opera seria, in which the drama is played out through a series of scenes, each of which usually comprises a single recitative, either simple (continuo only) or accompanied by strings (recitativo accompagnato), and a da capo aria (although this was not always the case – for example, see the more extended scenes in Orlando furioso). The first act is preceded by an overture, often a three-movement concerto for strings that bears no thematic relation to the opera; the third act normally ends with a chorus. The first and second acts often end with some form of climax highlighted by ensemble singing (Act Two of Griselda ends with the fine trio 'Non più regina'), unusual instrumentation or orchestral texture. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century Vivaldi made extensive use of obbligato instruments and lots of variation in the orchestral texture; after around 1725 the string texture became predominately four-part, while more emphasis was placed on the vocal line, as in the then-popular Neapolitan style. Fewer obbligato parts appear.
Griselda, a dramma per musica in three acts, is typical of Vivaldi's later operatic output. It was commissioned by the impresario Michele Grimani for Venice's Ascensiontide Festival 1735, and was given its first performance on 18 May at one of the city's finest theatres, the Teatro San Samuele. Grimani had engaged the young playwright Carlo Goldoni to modernise Apostolo Zeno's formerly very popular, but by this time rather outdated, libretto, which is based on an episode from Boccaccio's Il decamerone; Vivaldi (who generally favoured older librettos) seemed at first sceptical of Goldoni's abilities, but was won over when the young man wrote a new text for the opera on the spot. In order to streamline the dramatic structure, Goldoni cut Zeno's libretto from 34 arias and five duets to nineteen arias and one trio; many of his new texts, and Vivaldi's subsequent settings of them, were tailor-made for Girò (Griselda), who was apparently a fine actress but whose vocal abilities were more modest – see the superb climax to Act One, 'Ho il cor già lacero', in which a vocal line punctuated by multiple rests perfectly mirrors Griselda's emotions as she bewails her fate.
There are many other fine examples of Vivaldi's art in Griselda, like the various 'simile' arias, many of which feature highly virtuosic writing for the voice. From Act One is Corrado's 'Alle minacce di fiera belva', in which he compares his confidence in catching the villainous Ottone with that of a skilled hunter who is undeterred by the ferociousness of his prey. Appropriately, this aria features a pair of hunting horns. From Act Two is Costanza's extraordinary 'Agitata da due venti' (originally from Vivaldi's L'Adelaide); the text compares love and duty with two contrary winds, and the setting is correspondingly wild, with fierce fioriture and wide leaps. Similarly passionate is Ottone's 'Scocca dardi l'altero tuo ciglio', in which an enraptured heart to a butterfly drawn to lamplight; in a more lyrical vein is the same character's 'Vede orgogliosa l'onda' in Act One, where Ottone compares a scorned though constant lover with a helmsman who hopes to reach land despite the treacherous sea.
Following Vivaldi's death his former prima donna Anna Girò continued her singing career until 1748, when she married Count Antonio Maria Zanardi Landi and consequently retired from the stage. It is a tribute to her abilities that Vivaldi once said he could not mount an opera without her. Certainly in Griselda he left not only a lasting monument to what must have been Girò's prodigious talent; he also left a choice example of his own ability to respond perfectly to the nature of the instrument – whether it be made of flesh or wood.
Gualtiero, king of Thessaly, has been forced by the will of the people to reject his queen, Griselda, because of her lowly origins. Gualtiero therefore resolves to prove Griselda's worth to his ungrateful subjects through a series of cruel trials, beginning with banishing her from the palace and preparing to put another queen in her place.
In a hall of the royal palace, and before the people, Gualtiero orders the former shepherdess Griselda to return to the forests from whence she came, never more to see her child, Everardo. Gualtiero further tests Griselda's loyalty by admitting to ordering the murder of their missing daughter, Princess Costanza, though in reality he has brought her up in secret, safe from the whims of his fickle subjects. Ottone, a knight, offers his services to Griselda, with whom he has long been in love and on whose behalf he is prepared to overthrow Gualtiero. Griselda rejects his advances.
Meanwhile, Princess Costanza has arrived at the palace – for it is she whom Gualtiero is ostensibly to marry. She takes leave of her lover Roberto, ignorant of the fact that Gualtiero is her own father – only the king and his confidant Corrado (Prince of Athens and Roberto's brother), know this. Roberto is overcome with pain at Gualtiero's kind words to his beloved Costanza, but can do nothing. As Griselda takes leave of her son, the vindictive Ottone abducts the child and flees the palace. Corrado attempts to reassure Griselda and promises that he will rescue Everardo by any means necessary.
In the royal apartments, Corrado encourages Costanza to remember her loyalty to her first love, Roberto. She understands her duty to the king, however, and so when Roberto appears she adopts a regal attitude and bids him leave. By a hut in the countryside, Griselda is again accosted by Ottone, who says he will kill her son if she does not give in to his advances. A guard duly brings Everardo before Griselda. Corrado, who is concealed, watches all this, and when Griselda still refuses to yield, makes himself known. Fooling Ottone into thinking he supports his cause, Corrado is given the boy, with whom he returns to the safety of the palace.
Costanza and Roberto walk nearby, the former begging her lover to leave her at peace while admitting that she still adores him. They find Griselda asleep in her hut. Costanza feels an unaccountable connection to her, and as she wakes Griselda, too, seems to recognise her long-lost daughter, but she says nothing of this. Gualtiero suddenly appears. Costanza requests that Griselda be her handmaid. Gualtiero, however, who is still scornful of Griselda, tells Costanza that this is none other than the former queen. Corrado arrives with soldiers to warn the king of Ottone's plans, but Gualtiero decides, to the disbelief of all, to leave his former queen to her fate. Ottone soon arrives with his men to take Griselda away, but Gualtiero returns with Costanza and has Ottone arrested. The king, however, still scorns Griselda, saying that she has only Costanza to thank for her deliverance.
Griselda has returned to the palace as Costanza's handmaid, but overhears her new mistress and Roberto swearing their undying love for each other. She is incensed at such treachery, and moves to tell the king. Gualtiero appears with Corrado, who has also overheard the lovers and tells the king himself. Surprisingly, Gualtiero tells Griselda it is not her place to question the actions of her mistress, and then commands the two lovers to be faithful to one another.
The final test of Griselda's noble heart takes place in a magnificent reception room in the palace. Before his subjects Gualtiero attempts to force Griselda to marry Ottone, otherwise he will have her executed. Again Griselda refuses, to the delight of the king, who then reveals his true intent. Even Ottone is pardoned. The people are now convinced of Griselda's worthiness to be their queen, and she is restored to her daughter, her son, her husband and her throne.
The Italian libretto and an English translation may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660211.htm
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