Opera / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Vivaldi’s Griselda From the Pinchgut Opera of Sydney

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Miriam Allen as Costanza in Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Miriam Allen as Costanza in Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Dramma per musica.
Libretto by Carlo Goldoni after Apostolo Zeno
Music by Antonio Vivaldi
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 30 November 2011
continues until 5 December, and broadcast on ABC Classic FM at 7 pm, Sunday 4 December

Pinchgut Opera

Gualtiero – Christopher Saunders
Griselda – Caitlin Hulcup
Ottone – David Hansen
Roberto – Tobias Cole
Costanza – Miriam Allan
Corrado – Russel Harcourt

Orchestra of the Antipodes
Erin Helyard – conductor and harpsichord

Mark Gaal – director
Nicholas Gell – assistant director
David Fleischer – designer
Luiz Pampolha – lighting designer

“Modernized Opera” can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term “upgrade” which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if they’re changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn’t be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to “pastorella” or “boschi” or “selva” in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter). The modern setting if anything makes the opera more complicated as a genre of music and should not therefore be used in an attempt to make the opera ‘more understandable to the masses’ or the monolingual. Only a good music teacher will let a person understand opera well. In this case we have a seldom played late Baroque opera played on period instruments with a modern setting, sometimes quite explicit (clothes, mobile phones, etc.), but the opera, music and story, is strong enough to take almost anything from the director and designer. We are still confused about the nature of the complementary and individual strengths of men and women, often degenerating into a false dichotomy when talked about, and no closer to solving the problems now than in Vivaldi’s day of trusting both intellect and intuition, rational thought and wisdom in the personal or social planes, and everywhere between. If anything these problems are worse in today’s prosaic and material times. This opera which touches on these problems (as most do) in its own special way is well suited to be sung in a modern setting; Pinchgut has recognized this and accepted the challenge.

The story of Griselda, taken from Boccaccio’s Decameron is quite horrible. Set in ancient Thessaly it is full of political maneuvering and primitive cruelty like (threatened) exposure of infants, though it is a comedy insofar as it ends with everyone alive and more or less reconciled. 15 years before the action of the opera takes place, King Gualtiero had married the woman he loves, the peasant Griselda, and they have a child, Costanza. Facing a rebellious populace which is less tolerant than their king, disgusted by the unequal marriage, Gualtiero promises to kill the infant, but instead secretly sends her away to be brought up by a friend, but lets the people and Griselda believe the child was killed. 15 years later, Gualtiero and Griselda have another child, Everardo, and the people become unrestful again. Gualtiero tells them he will send Griselda away and does so, confiding only in his friend Corrado his true plans. He plays the ruse so convincingly though, he drives Griselda to despair while further tormenting her with cruelty. A young nobleman Ottone also adds insult to Griselda’s injury by taking advantage of her rejection to pursue her, going so far as kidnapping the infant Everardo and threatening to kill him. At the same time Gualtiero brings Costanza back to Thessaly announcing her as his new bride, but her lover Roberto comes too. Griselda faithfully loves Gualtiero all through this, in the end choosing Gualtiero’s threat of execution over his threat of a forced marriage with Ottone. This noble act is convincing enough proof to the populace that Griselda is worthy and ends their unrest with all ending up with their rightful, or at least original, partners.

Erin Helyard conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes in Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Erin Helyard conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes in Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

As an opera, this quite hard story is dominated by the music. Vivaldi’s music often has an edge to it, sometimes hard sometimes sharp, at times bordering on unrestrained and always sustaining a strong intensity, even through the lovliest arias. The composer had Goldoni rework an earlier libretto and his Griselda is full of fire, scorn, wrath and pain, a very touching and strong personality, but the music raises her to a plane even more powerful and genuinely human. First performed in 1735, the music sounds as if it is on the cusp between the Baroque and Classical periods. The orchestra is quite small, intimate in a way which works very well to draw the audience into the world of the opera (the audience even walks right past their chairs to get to their seats), but even so it gets up quite a high volume in the Angel Place concert hall which is fairly small, and bright enough to work well for vocal music and Baroque music on period instruments. There are many strong dynamic changes but Vivaldi uses many nuanced levels between soft and loud through the opera, and conductor Erin Helyard took much care in judging these dynamic changes while balancing the color of the orchestra. The music’s harmonic changes between and in arias and in the recitatives are very interesting and the company uses in this production an old early 18th Century Italian mean-tone temperament system of tuning which gives the chromatic intervals more character and makes these modulations more exotic to our ears which are generally more used to hearing equal temperament in concerts (though with the early music resurrection some 80 or so years old now, our ears are probably more open to the alternate tuning systems, at least nobody is daft enough nowadays to accuse performers using a different system of tuning of playing “out of tune”). The chords and colors Vivaldi comes up with are imaginative indeed and he contrasts the beauty of lyrical arias with legato melodies with intense “unbeautiful” though very gripping passages of music, including some extended staccato rhythms, sometimes both at the same time. At times one can almost hear the shadow of Mozart — in the shaking bows in the overture where joy flows so easily into despair (or at least apprehension) and out again, or in a very poignant unexpected chord change.

Caitlin Hulcup as Griselda in Act I of Pinchgut's Grisleda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Caitlin Hulcup as Griselda in Act I of Pinchgut's Grisleda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

This amazing music deepens all the characters beyond Goldoni’s libretto. Somehow it makes known or felt Gualtiero’s guilt over his cruelty to his wife in his political maneuvering at her expense. Is he a very good actor or a canny politician? Is there a difference? That’s not so much the interesting question though as how he can think the means justify the ends here. The intensity of Christopher Saunders’ acting and the energy of his voice which is on the smooth side but with a nice texture, yet forceful when it needs to be, helps rescue Gualtiero from coldness, but still it isn’t easy to feel much sympathy for him. Ottone also is not an easy character to sing and play being essentially a pure villain in the story, though his overwhelming love for Griselda is given credit in the end for sparing Everardo’s life. The character of the music of his arias tends to push him towards either buffoonery or madness, suggesting that immaturity is partly responsible for his cruelty, without excusing it. David Hansen’s acting and the modulation of his voice and the articulation of his vocal lines tended to underline this buffoonery, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness, even bordering on caricature at times. It is probably easier to play Ottone as a madman.

The music with that sharp Vivaldian edge, at times like the first new apple of autumn, (without wishing to generalize) which is so raw in not holding back any punches — sometimes literally in the loud staccato of the overture used again and again later in the opera which blurs the line between music and noise in a very “modern” way — is not cynical, though tends to underline gently the more worldly satire in the opera at some points. But I don’t want to make too much of that for the music goes far beyond satire and has much humanity in it. To bring the opera into the modern day, immediately tends makes the satire that much more hard hitting, placing ancient institutional cruelty and misogyny into what could be a rich man’s house in Noughties Sydney. Without curtains, the audience gets a good preview of the set while finding their seat with the house lights up. There is a black stage with a massive black wall which rises up to the height of the second balcony, not pure black but as if built of square black stones weathered to gray around the edges. There is a tall square archway cut into the wall allowing for wings leading off the stage to the left and right. The proportions give the teasing impression of a massive dolmen, which is a neat idea, but this impression is erased when the house lights go down and the stage lighting transforms it into a tasteless 21st Century rich squillionaire’s house. It would be an abstract setting except for the fact that people really do seem to live in houses like that. A single black leather padded bench to one side of the stage is the only furniture decorating it for the first half. Gualtiero walks out after the overture stroking and tapping his phone; the men where black suits with white or gray shirts and narrow ties as is the fashion now, and Roberto wears a gray-green factory-knitted sweater; Griselda wears a satin dress in a grayish blue-green, smart but a little bland. When Costanza enters she is in tight black jeans more like tights, with a very distracting mylar-sequined shirt, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, looking very much like a contemporary teenager.

Tobias Cole as Roberto in Act II of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Tobias Cole as Roberto in Act II of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Later, after the interval, a set change takes us outside: a plain black security door like those which roll down to protect inner city shop windows at night, or loading docks behind stores, closes the gap in the “dolmen.” Piles of stuffed garbage bags and a dusting of snow cover the stage. Only a narrow door on one side of the stage allows characters on and off. Griselda is homeless, sleeping in the pile of garbage bags. All wear coats now, either an overcoat (Gualtiero) or an orange gore-tex ski jacket (Roberto) or a puffy down, faux-fur-trimed short jacket (Costanza) or an dirty old winter coat (Griselda), depending on their current “socio-economic” status. To lead into Act III, there is a trio with Griselda, Costanza and Gualtiero, “Variano i fati, varia l’amor”, during which Griselda and Costanza are undressed and redressed by a maid and Corrado respectively, to make their see-sawing status seen as well as sung, Griselda into an identical gray maid’s uniform, Costanza into a plain pale cream satin wedding dress. Then there is a long pause as the security door is slowly raised up by its motor, creating an odd pause in the flow of the drama, the motor’s noise filling the hall after the very turbulent and touching ensemble music, creating a strange discomforting entr’acte effect as a wedding setup is revealed, its bright lighting making silhouettes of the cast waiting still on the stage. There is now a long table with yards of white satin trim and cream and white flowers and white satin curtains behind — a very bland, modern wedding. The transition works well: it is a brilliant way to make a scene and costume change (though the costume changes are a bit drawn out, making for a static ensemble) without introducing a second intermission, leading smoothly into the new act and the wedding preparations which are bitter for all at this point.

The modernity of the setting with its ultrabland, characterless riches, and even with an up-to-date and a very disturbing Australian political slogan printed on one of the protesting subjects’ placards in Act I Scene 1, combined with the satirical libretto could make for a very hard hitting modern satire, and this would be the case if the libretto were acted out as a play, but the setting is hardly ever too strongly sarcastic and the powerful music withstands all this so the design generally does not distract from the music. There are isolated distractions such as Ottone’s manipulating threats to the infant, which are somehow much more disturbing when brought into the present day, but part of this problem is intrinsic to the story. Then again the design was most successful in Act II with the homeless Griselda and the piles of garbage, adding great poignancy. The pastoral and natural metaphors, which are in almost all of the arias, were all the more heart rending in the bleak city street without so much as a bare street-tree. There is not much in the design that is “beautiful” in the ancient sense, but the music is not always beautiful either — though the music is never bland and never really lowers itself with sarcasm — the set design and direction were not really sarcastic either but were at times in Acts  I and III too obviously sardonic to do justice to the music. Also the plain hard wall in the back of the stage in Acts I and II seemed to be producing an unfortunate reverberation at at times, especially in the high voices.

The cast is quite top-heavy — Gualtiero is the only tenor with the rest contralto, mezzo-soprano or soprano. This suits the style of the music well and the lack of grounding from any basses or baritones in the cast contributes to the unstable feeling of the opera and its out-of-control scheme. It also underlines the youth of the characters whose emotions are not always effected by their reason. Male counter-tenors sing Ottone, Roberto and Corrado. Cuts in the opera, mostly recitative but also an aria of Gualtiero’s and two of Roberto’s, and a little bit of rearranging of scenes in Act II work to emphasize Ottone’s part while leaving out some of Corrado’s more merciful conversations with Griselda and some of Gualtiero’s guilty asides. Tobias Cole and Russell Harcourt have very fine, clean voices and they judged their tone and volume well to balance with the orchestra and the acoustic of the hall but were left with too little to do in the opera, which was unfortunate, especially when one sees Mr Harcourt’s natural acting style and Mr Cole’s unaffected and unexaggerated, so all the more touching, pining for Costanza. The opera moved very flowingly so it seemed to unfold very quickly, but this was due to good theatrical timing, the energy and enthusiasm of the cast, the tight recitative dialogue and the tempo changes, which Mr Helyard judged to perfection, rather than the shortened libretto.

David Hansen in Act III of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
David Hansen in Act III of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

David Hansen nearly stole the limelight as Ottone. He has some very virtuosic arias, especially as his character’s menacing exploits come to a head in Act III, which he sang very confidently. But I found his voice was roughened by a metallic edge at the loudest and top of his range. His acting was a hammed up at times too, though a challenging character, this risked ridiculing Ottone as puerile. Partly this was the fault of the direction, which, for example, had Ottone get half undressed for his first aria, pulling a stolen nightshirt of Griselda’s from his jacket pocket and putting it on. In an Act III aria he climbs all over the table and chairs, celebrating Gualtiero’s decree that he should marry Griselda, finds a champagne bottle, struggles with the cork and pops it off to time to the climax of the aria; he also hits Griselda on the face at one point. It is commendable to take a risk and try to bring comedy to the character, but it got to be too itchy clownish rather than mad and distracted from the interactions of the other characters.

Christopher Saunders got the modern gestures and a lordly attitude down down very naturally for the theater. He has a powerful voice which could be quite penetrating, never unpleasantly so, but he has very good control, keeping in fine balance with the period instruments and also with Caitlin Hulcup and Miriam Allan in the ensembles, which attained very high artistic heights. Gualtiero’s a tough nut to crack, with the problem being that Griselda is willing to give up her crown, riches, power and grandeur (dismissing the last as “oggetta vile”), but not her love, Costanza would give up queenhood to have the one she loves (even if in the end it was a false choice), but Gualtiero will not give up power to be with the woman he loves. He must have both and sometimes seems self-congratulatory at times carrying out his “brilliant” plan to get both. Then again one could argue it is better that he turn the popular sentiment, which is intolerant to the point of barbarism, to make a better society, better than many of today’s “leaders” who seem to see themselves as at the mercy of a perceived popular opinion and will not even try to change it for the better. But even so there’s no excusing Gualtiero’s cruelty in his method, and why he takes it to such an extreme.

Miriam Allan as Costanza and Tobias Cole as Roberto in Act I of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Miriam Allan as Costanza and Tobias Cole as Roberto in Act I of Pinchgut's Griselda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Miriam Allen played a gradually maturing Costanza skillfully. In the beginning she and Roberto were quarrelsome, she more frustrated with her predicament without expressing much empathy for Roberto, who feels it too, their interaction was even a bit disconcerting. But as they came together, and she realized her predicament was a full blown moral dilemma, she played and sang touchingly and deeply (see photo above). She had some very simple but very effective sweet gestures, for example in sidling over to Roberto during one of his pining arias in time with the rhythm Vivaldi gave him, and also in meeting her mother (though not consciously knowing it) for the first time in the heap of garbage. She makes us feel real sympathy for her predicament in Act III without dividing it from Griselda’s. When Griselda — both unconsciously maternal and jealous at the same time — attacks her as ungrateful after finding her in Roberto’s arms, it is easy to feel very uncomfortable.

Caitlin Hulcup and Russell Harcourt in Pinchgut's Grisleda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.
Caitlin Hulcup and Russell Harcourt in Pinchgut's Grisleda. Photo: Simon Hodgson.

Caitlin Hulcup gave an extraordinary performance. Her voice has intensity and a very striking presence without ever piercing or sounding unnaturally fraught and the text is aalmost always clear. Her singing had a rare rapport with the orchestra letting their strengths help the characterization along rather than trying to impose a certain imprint on the opera with her character. She also acts very well, her expressive face was very good for Griselda, seeming to go beyond the dichotomy between the submissive victim and the fiery, wild, scorned woman, rather bringing the character real humanity. Her simple natural gestures complement her singing and worked very well; the direction worked best when she was left to do this as she thought best, while, in comparison, the trio at the end of Act II where she must stand stock still and upright with Gualtiero and Costanza while being dressed in her maid’s uniform became unnaturally stiff and static for her. At the very end when she finds out everything is alright, her daughter and son both alive and even the populace is placated, she is flabbergasted and silent, which is really the only way to play it I think. There is no real physical expression of affection between her and Gualtiero, he only touches her to lift her hand and put her ring back, leaving it up there in the air, and this was well judged by Mark Gaal, any embraces between her and Gualtiero would have seemed false. Some comic opera productions make the end resolution cloying and didactic, but Pinchgut avoided this by a mile. It worked well leaving Ms Hulcup to act through this scene silently while the rest of the cast sang the final chorus together (which was a good idea too: to bring in a whole chorus for only those last four lines would have seemed odd and would have upset the fragile reconciliation and fine equilibrium between the cast and the orchestra with too much weight), but still the ending of the opera was somehow unsatisfying, in the way satires can never find a satisfying end. The opera isn’t really a comedy at all. In a way this doesn’t really matter since one remembers, after a few days, the performance as a whole and it is this that sticks with you. The fact that the mostly tight, well-paced performance did stick with me after to reflect on in a pleasant way, spoke highly of its integrity as a piece of drama as an integrated whole, and Caitlin Hulcup and the Orchestra of the Antipodes under Erin Helyard direction were also memorable in themselves. All the cast evidently put very much into the production and this showed positively.

Erin Helyard judged the tempi well, pacing the drama and giving it momentum, while giving the instrumental music expression to make it worthy of a concert on its own. In his articulation and accenting the instruments had quite a vocal quality, obviously very different from that of the singers, but wonderful in conversation with them and he kind of jives as he conducts, when not playing harpsichord; maybe Baroque instrumental music should ‘dance’ as well as ‘speak’. He creates music which is very alive, with clear, sometimes almost punchy, tutti pulsations, for example, but always clear, with the strings being especially versatile. The theorbo accompaniment, shared between Simon Martyn-Ellis and Tommie Andersson, of the recitative and some of the solos was very beautiful and complimented the arias closely. The natural horns (Darryl Poulsen and Lisa Wynne-Allen) which appear only in two places, added wonderful varied color, partly from the tuning, partly from the ecstatic playing, something inbetween regal and preternatural. The harpsichords, one by Welshman Colin Booth after a Vicenzio Sodi of 1750 the other by Sydneysider Carey Beebe after a Giovanni Natale Boccalari of 1679, sounded beautiful, almost bell-like, and quite subtle in the orchestra.

It is exciting that the Pinchgut Opera took on such a challenge in this opera, and I hope they find a way to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of their federal grant for next year’s production of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, and moreover that they continue to foster the unique and independent-minded character of their art which is so important to Sydney’s opera scene, not to mention Sydney’s arts.

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