Until very recently, the chances of being able to obtain a recording of an early-eighteenth-century opera were slim; excepting a handful of Handel's most popular operas, almost nothing was available in the catalogues of major record labels.
But recently we've seen a meteoric rise in the popularity of this repertoire, with numerous Handel discs coming out last autumn, Handel's Tolomeo and a Vivaldi disc on Universal this month and more releases planned for Naïve's exceptional Complete Vivaldi Edition (the most recent being Atenaide).
Now Naxos has got in on the act with a complete recording of Vivaldi's Griselda, an opera which has already appeared in an outstanding recorded performance as part of Naïve's collection. The piece belongs to the composer's late period and is a masterpiece in three acts. It was commissioned for Venice's Ascensiontide Festival and was first performed on 18 May 1735. One of the most important aspects of the piece is that it marks a meeting between Vivaldi and the young Carlo Goldoni, who was brought in to freshen up the much-used libretto by Apostolo Zeno. Apparently, Vivaldi felt dubious as to Goldoni's talents before he arrived but was thoroughly convinced when the playwright rewrote the libretto at high speed. The title role of Griselda was written for the mezzo-soprano Anna Girò, who was Vivaldi's protégée and possibly his lover. Evidently he was greatly inspired by her talents because her part is highly emotive and intricate, though many of the opera's nineteen arias feature careful word-painting.
Plenty to be attracted by, then, at least as far as the work is concerned. But oh dear, this recording simply doesn't do it justice on any level. A large number of the arias run for more than five minutes, but not a single one of them makes it to the close without slowing down and becoming turgid. Conductor Kevin Mallon usually sets off at quite a pace and tries to energise the Aradia Ensemble, but the accompaniments nearly always start to flag. Mallon simply does not have the same instinctive approach to this music and shies away from the vigour brought to it by Jean-Christophe Spinosi on the Naïve set.
Giles Tomkins's bass is challenged both by the fioriture and the tessitura of the role of Gualtiero, King of Tessaglia, seriously struggling with his early aria 'Se ria procella'. Like many of the cast, he uses vibrato on nearly every note, which makes long legato lines sound wobbly. Tenor Colin Ainsworth is overtaxed, too, in the role of Ottone, making very heavy weather of his second-act aria 'Scocca dardi l'altero tuo Ciglio'. Marion Newman is scarcely better in the title role, not providing sumptuous or noble enough tone for arias such as 'Brami le mie catene' (whose pacing is very choppy).
Salvation comes in the form of Carla Huhtanen's splendid singing as Costanza. She has the brightness of sound and technical assurance for the coloratura runs, making her arias 'Ritorna a lusingarmi' (Act I) and 'Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori' (Act III) two of the highlights of the collection. The only complaint is that she seems to suddenly step back from the microphone at the apex of her big cadenza, because the sound quality isn't consistent. It has to be said, too, that the recording acoustic in general is very resonant and does not favour the voices as it might; perhaps it is deliberate that the recording is very bass-heavy, because the orchestral configuration in the eighteenth-century was different from what we're used to today, but it does have the effect of making some of the arias sound like they are plodding along very brusquely.
Lynne McMurtry also has a lovely voice and makes much of Roberto's music, but otherwise the verdict on this set has to be that it is a second choice to the Naïve recording, highly superior in both performance and presentation.