Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Everything's Gone Green

July 17, 2011

Meredith Arwady, Paul Groves and Yuri Minenko Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Following a recent performance in Ojai with Dawn Upshaw singing George Crumb in a semi-staged production directed by Peter Sellars, a friend of mine commented that while he’d enjoyed the evening overall, he was tired of “the whole Peter Sellars thing.” I believe what he was referring to mostly was the director’s tendency to infuse everything he does with direct references to contemporary social and political issues and his boundless exuberance, which opera-goers in the U.S. have become familiar with over his long career. But I felt this summary judgment unfair at the time, and even more so after seeing the new production of Vivaldi’s Griselda which opened at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday. Taken together with his recent production of Handel’s Hercules at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last spring, Sellars’ work is anything but static and is evolving in new directions. Now, two events don’t make a trend, and the concern for contemporary social issues are still a big part of what is going on. But Griselda, like Hercules, has a surprisingly sparse look and feeling to it, focusing almost exclusively on the interpersonal interaction between the vocalists at the expense of everything else. Furthermore, strong painterly visual elements dominate both recent shows suggesting a greater abstraction of time and place than say projects like Doctor Atomic. Sellars’ Griselda uses no scenery or props other than three guns, two chairs and the giant single wall that makes up the set surrounding the vocalists. If this year is a guide, Sellars is streamlining his productions to the barest elements, leaving his performers completely exposed amid a visual world that is less diorama and more abstract art. It is a move that deconstructs an overdetermined work of art, opening it up to greater numbers of audience interpretations. But, it can also run the risk of getting dull if the visual artistic elements are not as strong as the musical and acting elements in the production.

Isabel Leonard as Costanza Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Luckily, Santa Fe’s new Griselda is as visually striking and theatrically engaging as anything I’ve seen this year. It is by no means a stand-and-deliver production despite its simplicity and it is blessed with a set painted by fellow L.A.-based artist Gronk that could fill an evening of viewing in its own right. Gronk has collaborated with Sellars before, most notably in 2005 in Santa Fe with Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. His abstract painting covers all sides of the stage in intense colors –red, white, and black- but mostly, and above all else, endless shades of green. The stage floor is also painted green and it radiates most of the evening under James F. Ingalls glorious lighting, which causes the massive painting to repeatedly express new colors and forms in conjunction with the performances. Often it is more the painting than the actual vocalists that is directly lit while performers sing in the shadows during moments that make dramatic sense for them to do so. The cast is similarly dressed in colorful, contemporary outfits from Dunya Ramicova including Gaultiero’s polo gear, Corrado’s lime green suit and Costanza’s white and pink quinceañera dress. Griselda’s hapless suitor Ottone appears in street clothes Ramicova stated were influenced by the early look of pop music act Usher.

The cast of Griselda Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The abstract visual elements of the production provide an interesting parallel for the dramatic and theatrical elements of the opera, which are similarly complicated, evocative and open to multiple conflicting interpretations. Griselda is not the kind of story contemporary audiences are accustomed to. It’s most famous instance occurs as the final story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 12th-Century Decameron, although it also appears as “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. (It even appears in Petrarch as well.) The story was immensely popular well into the 18th Century and by the time Vivaldi and his youthful playwright collaborator Carlo Goldoni got their hands on Apostolo Zeno‘s 1701 libretto in the 1730s, the story had already been set for the operatic stage many times, most notably by Alessandro Scarlatti. In Vivaldi's opera Griselda is the wife of Gaultiero, King of Thessaly. She was born poor and Gaultiero’s reputation among his people has suffered for having chosen a wife of such low origins. He elects to test Griselda’s honor and faith in him by putting her through a series of increasingly unbelievable humiliations that include divorcing her, banishing her (and her son separately) from his palace, and claiming to have murdered their daughter to avoid further dissatisfaction among the populace. The list goes on and the opera can be a grueling testament to Griselda’s suffering as Gaultiero brings their daughter Costanza, whose origins are unknown to anyone except him and his servant Corrado, out of hiding and announces his plans to marry her. However, Griselda’s faith and love in Gaultiero are never shaken and she refuses to act or even speak out against him, accepting each increasingly horrific dictum with resolution until Gaultiero proves to his people her worthiness through her boundless deference and restores her to her husband, throne and children.

Amanda Majeski as Ottone Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Needless to say, it’s a story that is problematic, but Sellars, like others before him, invites the audience to see Griselda as a more complicated figure. Griselda’s endurance and fortitude against a world of injustice create a psychological power for her in their own right, her self-denial becomes a source of strength in this argument. She refuses to despair or abandon what she truly believes despite what is going on around her. This notion of transcendence through suffering has Catholic overtones and Sellars puts a point on this by suggesting in his own notes that Griselda may represent a female Christ figure. He musically underscores this with a canny change to the musical score. Vivaldi cast his probable mistress Anna Giró in the title role for the opera's premiere and while she may have had many positive attributes, singing was not one of them. All of Griselda’s arias were therefore written in an aria parlante form being a little bit closer to recitative than air and leaving Santa Fe’s formidable Griselda, Meredith Arwady, with some of the evening’s most unattractive music. So in an act of musical and theatrical redemption, Griselda’s final aria is replaced with the first aria from Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater. Sellars’ Griselda closes her vocal performance with a reflection on Mary and her suffering at the foot of the cross. It is a touching moment and works well in the opera, although Sellars take on Grisedla’s story is certainly not the definitive or only one.

Meredith Arwady and Paul Groves Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

Griselda is unusual in other ways as well and stands out even for lovers of Baroque music. Vivaldi was in his 60s when he set Goldoni’s revision of the libretto and decided to go along with the younger man’s forward thinking for the time about musical drama. Goldoni cut nearly half of the arias from Zeno’s original libretto and added recitative, creating a work that has unusually large amounts of what most contemporary audiences would see as filler in a Baroque opera. There are lengthy passages of recitative that both begin and end the performance, and the emphasis in the revision was on theatrical values. The end effect is a performance where the vocalists have a lot of acting to do outside of their actual singing and they uniformly succeed at it. Vivaldi’s music tends to be more straight-forward harmonically than one might think of from Handel or other Baroque composers. But there was still plenty of wonderful music to be sung, and Santa Fe has brought together a wonderful cast.

Besides Arwady’s dark contralto which dominates the stage if not the whole opera, there were superb performances from nearly everyone in the cast. Isabel Leonard sang Costanza’s big aria “Agitata da due venti” with remarkable technical skill and excellent volume and control. She clearly distinguished herself musically from everyone around her in an ensemble cast with its share of heavy hitters. She shared the biggest ovations of the evening with Amanda Majeski who sang Ottone, Griselda's unusually threatening other suitor, with a beautiful lyrical ease. There were excellent countertenors galore. Yuri Minenko sang Gaultiero’s henchman Corrado with a bright and shining tone. David Daniels, cast as Costanza’s love Roberto was announced as ill, replaced on opening night with a very young and handsome Jason Abrams who availed himself spectacularly given the short notice of going on. Perhaps the only vocally under-performing member of the cast was Paul Groves’ Gaultiero who sometimes sounded unsteady though never pitchy. This sort of Baroque performance is not Groves’ typical rep, but he made a good go of it and was completely committed to a very mean spirited role. All of this was conducted by another L.A. artist, Grant Gershon in his Santa Fe Opera premiere. Gershon’s star continues to rise and he gave a fleet, careful turn through the score with a contemporary orchestral approach. It's exciting to see his face show up increasingly on other podiums around the country.

As a lover of Baroque opera, I found it a hugely successful evening with a thoughtful and visually exciting approach to the material. And while the interpretation may not please everyone or resolve all the conflicts in the way some people like, it is a production that takes a stand, has a point of view, and runs with it. It is not a museum piece despite its age, and any opera company that produces that kind of work is doing the right thing. And any show that is as visually pretty as it is acoustically deserves to be seen. Sellars' take on Vivaldi's Griselda will be onstage in Santa Fe through August 19.



You are way too kind.

That was bad Regietheater.

Vivaldi is spinning in his grave.

I can deal with the bad set, uneven singing and poor blocking/staging.

But when you start swapping in different music that wan't even written for that opera, you lose integrity...
I'm not being kind. Just honest. As for Vivaldi spinning, he's far too decomposed at this point for that I'd imagine.

I'm not much of one for the integrity argument. I'm inferring that the issue here is that altering the score is not what Vivaldi intended. But I'm unconvinced and unconcerned with those arguments since Vivaldi and other Barque composers regularly made such alterations, sometimes from performance to performance, based on a number of issues including what performers were available, changes in fashion, etc. The idea of an honorable monolithic work is really a 19th cent. phenomenon. Everything Sellars did here seems quite in line with what Vivaldi might have done himself in such circumstances. But since he's long gone, it really doesn't matter what he thinks at this point.
Sellars is wise to work with visual artist, Gronk. The work is amazing and deserves to be seen and heard all over the world. Those who can, DO. Those who can't, criticize.
I thought it was an incredible, bold production. Typically, opera sets bore me to distraction. This production was beautifully balanced between the set, music, lighting, and blocking. The performers were in their bodies as part of the piece. It was a true pleasure to experience.
Nice review, Brian -- I am interested in hearing more about what you thought Sellars was trying to say, because I could not make out any coherent idea. What did the guns, bodyguards, Usher and colored tux costumes, and especially the odd ending add to the story of Griselda? You say that Sellars "invites the audience to see Griselda as a more complicated figure," but how exactly? If the addition of the "Stabat mater" (a gorgeous piece of music to be sure) is part of the character's "act of musical and theatrical redemption," who exactly is she redeeming? She chooses to undergo her suffering, in a Christ-like way (which is not really in line with the libretto, since she rails against her plight, quite proudly, especially in her first aria), to redeem -- Gualtiero, or someone else? Does the alteration of the ending really support the redemption concept, with the moment of resolution so deflated?

I am not criticizing your take on the staging: I would just like to understand more what you saw in it.
Hi Charles,

Thanks for the comment. I decided to post my response on Google+ instead of here due to its length. I've put the link below for you and anyone who is interested.

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