Vivaldi in concert

19 Sep

Opera Settecento is a new venture planning to specialise in the opera of the 18th century, particularly, the first half. The thesis is that, now that Handel is pretty much mainstream, we ought to explore the other composers of the time – Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Hasse and the like. They want to do this as fully as possible and with casts, as close as possible to those of the first night. I’m in favour of anyone who’s going to extend my opera collection and so was at the Cadogan Hall for their first performance – Vivaldi’s Griselda – on September 18th.

The story’s relatively familiar – the wife, Griselda, whose fidelity is tested by her husband Gualtiero is the subject of unwanted attention from the villain Ottone while Gualtiero gives out that he will marry Costanza who has arrived with her guardian, Corrado and her lover, Roberto.  Costanza happens to be Gualtiero and Griselda’s long lost daughter.  Once you’ve sorted that out, the plotline is readily followable and, as it struck me, quite thin. It’s one of Vivaldi’s shorter operas and, I think, was done successfully by Buxton about 30 years ago.

It’s difficult to judge a piece on a concert performance. Inevitably comparisons are made with Handel – the opera was written in 1735, so post the London composer’s greatest operatic masterpiece. What struck me was the amount of recitative, which seemed to be in significantly longer chunks than in most Handel operas – perhaps understandably if you are writing for a Venetian audience that can understand. Secondly, there are fewer arias and they are all lengthy da capo numbers. This means that there is less opportunity to establish character – Handel’s technique of giving his leading characters at least six arias of varying lengths doesn’t seem to apply here and I wasn’t convinced that they were geared with a particularly character in mind. Take the villain, Ottone. His first aria is a gorgeous aria of love for the heroine. Fair enough, but there isn’t anything to suggest the man who removes her son, threatens to kill him and tries to force her into marriage. As in most operas of the time the arias were of varying quality. Apart from Ottone’s aria and a final virtuoso one with horn obbligato for Corrado, those in Act I struck me as pleasant but ordinary. Those in Act II, particularly for Corrado, Ottone, Costanza and Roberto are in an altogether different league and were a real delight to hear. The trio at the end of that act is pleasant too. But it struck me as meagre compared with Handel’s masterpieces. The acts are odd lengths – the first two an hour each, the last half an hour – with musical goodies mostly in Act II. I could understand it if a director were to divide the second act in half to make it a two, rather than three, acter.

It might work on the stage with a sensitive director and, possibly, an English translation. There are, as I’ve suggested some really good arias, but whether it would really make a satisfying evening strikes me as debatable.

So what was the performance like? Thomas Foster conducted vigorously and, I thought, stylishly. The orchestra played well and relished the rather charming accompaniments. The arias gave a lot of pleasure.  There was a musical commitment and belief in the piece.

The singers were mostly young, which always rings alarm bells for me in operas that were written for seriously fine virtuoso singers. None were Italian speakers and you could tell. Surely the recits should be swifter, fleeter and take less time than the rather, plodding, heaviness that we had here and surely they should be more communicative. A sense of lassitude descended whenever they started.  All sang from the parts with variable attempts at acting.

As with the recits, I felt that the arias would have benefited from great attention to the words and to the opportunities for varying the expression and actually putting the thoughts across. What we had were a group of singers coping to a greater or lesser extent with some very, very virtuosic arias and you wondered how much real preparation or coaching they’d had. With this caveat, there was a lot to enjoy. Hilary Summers made a noble Griselda even if you felt that she was far too sensible to be made to go through this rigmarole. Kiandra Howarth as Costanza sang her second Act aria really strongly and I wished only for clearer words. Erica Eloff as Ottone struck me as someone to watch with two gems of arias which she did very nicely indeed. Andrew Watts as Roberto, Costanza’s love interest, has the best range of arias and showed his experience. As Corrado, Tom Verney seized his opportunities with infectious enthusiasm – he’s still at the Guildhall, according to the programme but should, I imagine, be on the list of every group wanting to find a good young counter-tenor. He confirmed the promise his Swallow with the BYO last week. Ronan Busfield, as Gualtiero, the stern husband, struck me as having the weakest arias and as being most stretched by them.

So it was an interesting and worthwhile evening that deserved a better audience than turned out (though it was attentive and enthusiastic).  Those behind the company are clearly serious and enthusiastic (and provided an expensive, but very full programme with the text and translation) and I do hope that they build on this strong start and let us explore even more of these by-ways.  They promise a Handel piece for the London Handel Festival another opera here (“probably by Pergolesi”) this time next year.

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