Opera Settecento’s first production left no doubt that this young Opera Company will make its mark on the Baroque music scene in the years to come.
Opera Settecento burst onto the Baroque music scene with a concert production of Vivaldi’s Griselda at Cadogan Hall. Drawing on internationally renowned singers such as Contralto Hilary Summers and Countertenor Andrew Watts, as well as promoting up-and-coming new talent, Opera Settecento’s resurrect the “unjustly neglected ‘opera seria’ scores from the 18th century” which reside in the vaults of libraries and archives all over Europe. The company is lead by is led by its Musical Director, Thomas Foster.
The incomparable contralto Hilary Summers delivered the title role of Griselda with arresting stage presence. Her characterisation was underpinned by a precise understanding of the libretto, and a willingness to bring a steely determination to the role. Summers’ rich contralto was a striking contrast to the four higher voices, at times even challenging Ronan Busfield’s lyric tenor for strength in the lower registers. Particularly impressive was the fiery “Ho il cor già lacero” which Summers delivered with total security and with astounding force. Given the role was created by Vivaldi’s protégé, the contralto Anna Girò, it was wonderful to see a true contralto in the cast for once.
The revelation of the evening was the soprano Erica Eloff, who excelled in the en travesti role of Ottone. The role is a difficult one to cast, as its range of over two octaves from G3, its awkward, athletic jumps between head and chest registers, and its tessitura, create palpable challenges for sopranos, mezzos and countertenors (though David Hansen performed this role masterfully in Pinchgut Opera’s recent production).
Eloff had no such troubles with the technicalities of the role, unleashing a few incredible stratospheric pieces of ornamentation. Her control, and use, of the full dynamic spectrum, with some incredible pianissimo notes left the audience in no doubt of her technical capabilities. She was also a fantastic actress as well, crafting a cleverly nuanced Ottone with dashes of humour. The key aria for the role is, of course, “Dopo un'orrida procella” and Eloff executed this devilish arias with the air of someone who rolls off arias like that as a warm-up exercise. Eloff delivered an exhilarating performance, and she is definitely someone to watch in the future.
Ronan Busfield took on the role of Gualtiero, Griselda’s husband. His first aria was one of Vivaldi’s nightmare tenor coloratura arias, which Busfield heroically delivered, committing himself totally from the onset. In his final aria, Busfield interpolated a magnificent octave-and-a-half leap from chest to head registers. His voice was an excellent choice for the often low-lying tessitura of the role. Kiandra Howarth performed a mighty “Agitata da due venti”, while countertenor Andrew Watts often threatened to steal the show as Roberto. The second countertenor of the even was Tom Verney in the role of Corrado.
Thomas Foster, directing from the Harpsichord, lead his orchestra, playing on period instruments, with style and flair, breathing life into the work, and giving the long passages of recitative a dynamism which helped the audience to engage with the drama of the plot. His tempo choices were always tasteful, and Foster resisted following the current trend of replacing every tempo marking with prestissimo!