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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Griselda, RV718, Dramma per musica in Three Acts (1735)
Libretto by Apostolo Zeno (1668-1750) and Carlo Goldoni (1707-93)
Performing edition by Kevin Mallon.
Gualtiero, King of Thessaly – Giles Tomkins (bass)
Griselda, His Wife, the Queen of Thessaly – Marion Newman (mezzo)
Costanza, Daughter of Griselda and Gualtiero, Princess of Thessaly – Carla Huhtanen (soprano)
Roberto, Prince of Athens – Lynne McMurtry (mezzo)
Corrado, Roberto’s Brother – Jason Nedecky (baritone)
Ottone, Noble Knight of Thessaly – Colin Ainsworth (tenor )
Opera in Concert; Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
CD1: Sinfonia [4:54]; Act I [60:23]
CD2: Act II [64:2]
CD3: Act III [39:28]
rec. Grace Church-on-the-Hill, Toronto, Canada, 4-14 September 2006, in association with Sun Life Financial. DDD.
Booklet with notes and synopsis in English and German. Texts and translations available only online.
NAXOS 8.660211-3 [3 CDs: 65:17 + 64:21 + 39:28]
Experience Classicsonline


Vivaldi’s fifty operas were once something of a no-go area except in live recordings from the likes of Nuova Era – and even live performances are rare, as Naxos notes on its website biography of the composer. They are now receiving welcome and overdue attention from the record companies. Naxos already boasts a respectable catalogue of Vivaldi’s music but, apart from an Arthaus DVD of Orlando Furioso, distributed by Naxos, this is their first foray into his operas.
 
On the basis of earlier recordings with Kevin Mallon at the helm of the Aradia Ensemble, I had high expectations of this set, even though the competition is fierce, in the form of the recent highly-recommended recording under Jean-Christophe Spinosi which “puts as compelling a case for Vivaldi’s operas as one could very well imagine being made on CD.” (Naïve/Opus111 OP30419, also 3 CDs – see review).
 
The plot of Griselda, based on Boccaccio’s Decameron, will be familiar to those who have studied Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale for A level or as part of a degree course. Vivaldi’s librettist made a few small changes – Walter is elevated to regal status – but the basic plot remains the same. Walter, who has married for love ‘below’ himself, resolves to try his wife Griselda’s patience with a series of ever more cruel tests, from which she emerges with flying colours and all ends happily. As Chaucer’s Clerk wryly observes, with an eye on the Wife of Bath, when he has finished telling the tale, this is not one to try at home!
 
The libretto, by Apostolo Zeno had already been used by Bononcini and Alessandro Scarlatti; the Harmonia Mundi recording of the latter is, sadly, no longer available (HMC90 1805.07), one of those recordings I always meant to buy but left it too late – be warned. For Vivaldi the libretto was revised by Carlo Goldoni.
 
The timings for this new recording are noticeably slower than those on the Spinosi set (Overture and Act I 65:17 against Spinosi’s 58:58, Act II 64:21 against 59:28 and Act III 39:28 against 36:18). With a mid-act CD change, Spinosi could actually have fitted the whole work onto 2 CDs! He clearly belongs to the modern Italian school of whiz-bang Baroque interpreters alongside the likes of Rinaldo Alessandrini.
 
As I indicated in my recent review of the Stefano Montanari/Ottavio Dantone recording of Vivaldi’s complete Op.8 concertos, I am mostly completely bowled over by the energy of such high-powered performances, but there are times and moods when I find them hard to take. At those times I turn away from the new Op. 8 to my ‘safer’ alternative with Monica Huggett and Nicholas Kraemer and from Alessandrini’s highly-charged Vivaldi Gloria (recently reissued at mid-price on Naïve OP30448) to older, more placid versions. So it is with Griselda: this may be the ‘safer’ alternative that you may have been looking for – something more akin to the older school of Italian interpretations of Baroque music from the likes of Claudio Scimone.
 
In case I seem to be doing a disservice to Alessandrini, let me at this point give a strong recommendation to the recent reissues of his Monteverdi Madrigals Book V (Naïve OP30445) and of Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (Naïve OP30440, 2 CDs) in the Voix Baroque mid-price series, of both of which I hope to offer full reviews in due course.
 
The playing and singing on this Naxos set are mainly good. Carla Huhtanen’s Ritorna a lusingarmi (CD1, tr.10) is a real tour de force. Only comparison with Emma Kirkby’s rendition of Agitata da due venti reveals that there is a little more than she finds in the music of Costanza (CD2, tr.4), though she is the best of the vocalists, with Lynne McMurtry (Roberto) as runner-up. Roy Goodman’s performance of the Griselda Overture on that Kirkby disc, too, shows that Mallon is just a little too unfeeling here. (CDH55279, recently enthusiastically recommended here on Musicweb – see review).
 
The other singers are at least adequate and often better, but Spinosi’s are outstanding. In general the women sing better than the men. Colin Ainsworth as Ottone is perhaps the weakest link, at least in part because this part has been transposed from its soprano original. Nor is Giles Tomkins at home as a bass Gualtiero, a role written for a tenor. Tomkins’s diction in the opening Questo, o Popoli, è il giorno is less than ideal, too. On the Spinosi recording Ottone and Gualtiero are sung in their correct registers. There is more to be said for Marion Newman as a somewhat sub-fusc Griselda – after all, she is the original uncomplaining wife.
 
In general Mallon’s tempi are rather slow, to the extent that I actually became bored with some of the arias – the first time I ever recall being bored with anything by Vivaldi. This is the price that one pays for the ‘safe’ interpretation. The playing of the Aradia Ensemble orchestra is more than reliable throughout.
 
I suppose that one ought not to grumble in this price-range at having to go online to obtain the libretto and translation – EMI do worse with their mid-price opera reissues, referring the listener to a website which I have never yet been able to find, and BMG/Sony’s recent recording of Armida arias even had the effrontery at full-price to compel listeners to download the texts and translations.
 
Yet if Hyperion can offer full texts with their Helios reissues in the same budget-price range, why cannot Naxos? And what does one do with an A4 printout that won’t fit in the CD case? Worse still, although this recording was issued as long ago as January, the promised on-line libretto was still ‘under preparation’ when I tried for the umpteenth time on 6 March 2008 [now available Oct08]. I have kept delaying the finalisation of this review until the libretto appeared but have now given up. The synopsis is adequate only – rather brief and not keyed to the CD tracks.
 
This means that I cannot write the kind of detailed review that I normally write and the fault is Naxos’s. I cannot, for example, comment on the quality of the diction, except in the few well-known arias where I have access to the text or where Bononcini’s libretto is identical (i.e. the Zeno text before the Goldoni revisions); this libretto is available online.
 
The recording is generally good, though not always ideally focused. The notes, by William Yeoman, are short but to the point; only half of them refer to the opera, the first half being taken up with unnecessary general information about Vivaldi including, inevitably, the Four Seasons.
 
I’m sure the members of the various organisations who supported this recording wouldn’t have minded not being named individually – the list of their names takes up the whole of page 5 of the booklet, a page which would surely have been better used for more detailed notes on the opera.
 
Some good, some bad, then. The Naïve recording is the one to go for – and Naïve are currently in the process of issuing highlights CDs from their Vivaldi series for those not prepared to go the whole hog.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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