A Note on GRISELDA by Peter Sellars
Venice is the city where opera first became an industry, with results not unlike today’s Hollywood—most of the product is hugely (and even absurdly) formulaic with manufactured (shall we say less-than-believable?) crises followed swiftly by goofy non-sequiturs, unforgivable comic turns and jury-rigged resolutions. The whole farrago is whipped up to fever pitch, meant to “grab” an audience “suffering” from attention deficit disorder. Instead of characters, there are well-worn stereotypes, so the major roles turn out to be minor and the minor roles carry the day in a society of spectacle, distraction, and studied irrelevance.
Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century story of Griselda (the culminating hundredth tale in his Decameron) was known to the world as one of the high points of Italian literature and even more widely in Chaucer’s adaptation, “The Patient Griselda,” in The Canterbury Tales. Boccaccio’s disturbing and provocative story was extensively adapted in theater and opera for generations, speaking across the centuries of highhanded executive privilege, absolute power, women’s roles, and strange social and spiritual complicities. It is still speaking to an age of “Reality” Television in which nothing is real and people are willing to sell themselves, their friends, or anything within reach for the dangled promise of instant wealth and mechanical happiness. Griselda’s calm, still, centered commitment and constancy is in stark contrast to the people who surround her, people who have difficulty living with themselves let alone with others in a universe of broken and stolen identities and inflated or exploded reputations. Needless to say, the possibilities for weirdness, delusion, and self-betrayal multiply exponentially in an age in which you can twitter your underpants to unknown individuals, or still keep alive the hoary old hoax that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
In 1735, the sixty-year-old Venetian master Vivaldi handed the twenty-five-year-old Goldoni a Griselda libretto by Apostolo Zeno that had already been around the block quite a few times. The furious young Goldoni, the future “Moliere” of Italian literature, disliked opera and despised stereotypes. He set to work slashing the Zeno libretto, intensifying the situations, darkening and deepening the language, and making the story and characters unexpectedly raw. He openly called the work a tragedy. He cut fifteen arias and eliminated the spectacle. In rewriting the text of every single aria, he created a theme shared across the main characters that rang musical and poetic changes on the trope of a wise or helpless or terrified helmsman caught in a storm at sea, desperate and drowning. Goldoni wanted to make opera more like theater, with the result that most of the opera is recitative—the piece begins and ends with twenty minutes of dialogue, for example. Vivaldi played along—the explosions of orchestral sound after long, complex stretches of speech are stunning.
Vivaldi entered the compositional process of Griselda in a white heat of inspiration, composing arias that range brilliantly across a huge emotional spectrum with cascades of notes that exemplify and incite the psychic extremes of his characters and the dazzling virtuosity of his orchestra. The music tells a radically different story from the “official” text—for example, for the opening statement by Gualtiero, the authority figure, who announces that everything is perfectly under control, Vivaldi creates a virtually unsingable aria of hysterical hyperventilation and open-ended personal trauma. Vivaldi stays with the characters in their moral and psychological gyrations, frequently surprising the listener with a depth of beauty accorded to a person we would not otherwise consider beautiful, but never backing off from the violence of the story or the damage of their demented choices. Vivaldi writes an agitated, quicksilver soundtrack for people dealing with fear.
In transmuting Griselda’s three-act structure into two acts, we have made a performance edition that extends Goldoni and Vivaldi’s bold approach to the drama they inherited. We have suppressed two episodes of recitative (over-the-top plot twists left over from Zeno) that are entirely out of character for Boccaccio’s Griselda, and eliminated one minor aria each for Griselda and Roberto. All the characters now have three arias apiece (with the exception of the mysterious Corrado who has two).
The music of Griselda herself presents a special challenge. Writing nearly fifty years later in his highly entertaining memoirs, Goldoni offers the following anecdote of his first meeting with Vivaldi and the touchy subject of Ms. Giro, the prima donna and Vivaldi’s alleged girlfriend:
‘See, sir, this scene between Gualtiero and Griselda is very interesting and touching. The author has tacked a pathetic air to it, but Miss Giro is not fond of languishing songs; she wishes something expressive and full of agitation, an expression of the passions by different means, by words interrupted, for example, by sighs, with action and motion; I don’t know whether you understand me?’
‘Yes, sir, I understand you perfectly well; besides, I have had the honor of hearing Miss Giro, and I know that her voice is not very powerful.’
‘What, sir, do you mean to insult my scholar? She is good at everything, she can sing anything.’
‘Yes, sir, you are right. Give me the book and allow me to proceed.’
Thus it is that, in this extraordinary piece, the title character has the least interesting music to sing. Subsequent Griseldas need not share Ms. Giro’s vocal limitations and so, as a humanitarian gesture for both the character and the singer, we have substituted one of Vivaldi’s most profound creations for alto voice, the opening movement of his Stabat Mater, for Griselda’s last aria. When Griselda asks, “Who has known suffering like my suffering?” the image of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross brings us full circle to Boccaccio, who regarded his parable of grace in the face of injustice and patience in a time when wrong appears to be triumphant, as a passion story in which the cleansing and redemptive power of suffering elevates a woman to the transcendent role of savior, healer, reconciler, and the divinely beloved.
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