Griselda | Pinchgut OperaLeft – Caitlin Hulcup and Russell Harcourt. Cover – Caitlin Hulcup. Photos – Simon Hodgson

The story on which this opera in based appears as the very last of Boccaccio’s collection of stories, the Decameron, and was made popular by Petrarch’s version a few decades later. It concerns a series of increasingly brutal tests of the heroine’s fidelity and constancy, in the course of which three of the four male characters display an intensity of selfishness unusual even in men.

Griselda’s husband, the king of Thessaly, having many years before pretended to kill her first child, peremptorily repudiates her because his subjects demand that he marry someone of royal blood, Griselda being a commoner. Ottone, her would-be lover, threatens to kill her second child if she doesn’t submit to him (a ploy that of course is still current, and not the exclusive property of men). Corrado, the king’s brother, is the king’s accomplice in every way. With a sadistic twist, Griselda is allowed back to the court as the maid of his new queen. Eventually the king, convinced of Griselda’s extreme fidelity, takes her back in what is supposed to be the happy ending demanded of eighteenth century opera, but by then Griselda has been badly damaged, a point underlined in this production.

Caitlin Hulcup’s performance of the title role was a complete triumph. She acted the thankless role of female doormat in a way which drew the audience persuasively inside the deterioration of her inner and outer world. Her negotiation of the extremely virtuosic vocal part was glittering. In fact, the prevailing impression of the evening was astonishment at her vocal acrobatics and those of most of the rest of the cast too.

In Vivaldi’s time two of the male characters were performed by castrati, and a third by a mezzo-soprano. In Pinchgut’s performance, all three were sung by countertenors. David Hansen as Ottone, an even more brilliantly coloratura role than Griselda, astounded the packed audience with his breathtaking flexibility and range (he wisely went into baritone for the lowest register). Tobias Cole as Roberto was scarcely less impressive, and Russell Harcourt’s Corrado, though not quite as demanding, was beautifully controlled. The role of the king was taken by Christopher Saunders. His acting seemed to me at times oddly insouciant, but his clear ringing tenor matched the countertenors well.

The ironically named Costanza, who is chosen by the king as his royal-blood queen, was sung by Miriam Allan. Her role is the only one in the opera with any sense of character development as she gradually becomes aware of the deceptive and degrading treatment meted out to Griselda, and Allan portrayed the progression from frivolous teenager to understanding woman with care and sensitivity. Her singing, in yet another demanding and acrobatic role, was wonderfully light and flexible. She takes part in the single ensemble that Vivaldi gives us in this opera, a beautiful trio. If only there had been more of them.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes, playing on period instruments, gave a crisp, incisive, exciting rendering of the score, energetically directed from the harpsichord (which he however rarely actually played) by Erin Hellyard. Apart from two numbers with natural horns, the work is scored only for strings, but one hardly noticed the sameness of the sound-world amid the welter of vocal pyrotechnics.

There was one moment of true theatre in the production by Mark Gaal, which was when Griselda emerged from the pile of garbage in which she lives after her repudiation, but unfortunately it was obscured by the applause for the preceding aria. Otherwise the racy recitatives were continually interrupted by the constant succession of da capo arias – the very thing Gluck objected to just a decade or so later. And yet in a perverse way the cessation of action, or perhaps better, the disengagement from the drama, that these arias inevitably constitute suited the sense that each of the characters, especially the men, were in a world of their own, yes, disengaged from anyone else’s actions and from the consequences of their own actions.

Pinchgut Opera is unique in Australia as an opera company dedicated to music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is also, deservedly, highly successful – the run of four performances of Griselda is almost sold out. It makes the disarming claim that its artistic aim is to put the music of the operas first (by which I take it they mean to explain why they perform in a concert hall and not in a theatre), and that the stage direction of their operas has to work within this limitation. Certainly their performances display the state of the art of early music performance in this country. But isn’t that actually what opera companies usually do, put the music first? Opera Australia, despite its often dazzling scenery, puts, I would say, the music first too. As a musician, one has an instinctive sympathy with this position. As an opera composer myself, however, I would venture the suggestion that there is room for an opera company which puts the theatre first.

Pinchgut Opera presents

Director: Mark Gaal

Venue: City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Dates: 30 Nov – 5 Dec, 2011
Bookings: or (02) 8256 2222

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