GRISELDA (VENICE, 1735) BY ANTONIO VIVALDI

Cadogan Hall, London, September 18

OPERA, DECEMBER 2014  

The outstanding singer was the South African soprano Erica Eloff, taking the castrato role of Ottone with aplomb: beautiful sound, cleanly defined divisions, bold, sure leaps, the ability to fire bright salvoes of repeated, sweetly-tuned high notes, a command of messa di voce, gentleness wherever required, and bravura in a dashing account of “Dopo un’orrida procella” to rival David Hansen’s celebrated performance on YouTube. Like Monica Sinclair, Janet Baker, Marilyn Horne before her, Eloff effortlessly solved “the castrato problem”. Griselda has two further high-voice male roles. Vivaldi himself entrusted one of them to a woman (Elisabetta Gasparini), the other to a castrato. In this performance, both were taken by counter-tenors, Andrew Watts and Tom Verney were admirably fluent in divisions, a bit shriek on high notes. In a strictly “concert” performance – each of the 19 arias was performed in isolation, before a music stand – Watts was the singer readiest to lift eyes from the book and engage the audience. In the contralto title role, Hilary Summers was capable, perhaps a shade more majestic than one expects patient Grizzel to be. As her husband Gualtiero, Ronan Busfield was a passable but rather colourless tenorino. Kiandra howard was a sparkly if not always quite accurate Constanza, their long-lost daughter whom Gualtiero proposes to marry – as a test of Griselda’s submission to his wishes. It’s an odd story. When Chaucer set his Clerk to tell it as a Canterbury tale, he added a modern envoy enjoining women to stand up for themselves: “Don’t let me do you down; be fierce as the Indian tiger; fear them not, never revere them”.

From the harpsichord, Thomas Foster led a small, alert orchestra (seven violins, viola, cello, double bass, two horns in the bravura arias, a second harpsichord) with sensitivity and skill. Stravinksy, I think, was wrong to call Vivaldi “a dull fellow”. I’ve admired and enjoyed the dozen or so operas of his that I’ve heard. He was a master. He seems dull only when he’s dully performed. Sometimes, to be sure, routine starts to set in; but it’s never long before some striking new invention rekindles interest and delight.

Andrew Porter