Irish National Opera and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 12 October 2019

Tonight, nearly 280 years after his death, composer Antonio Vivaldi makes his operatic debut in Ireland with Irish National Opera’s production of Griselda. That in itself is not so exceptional—much theatrical material from his time still awaits rediscovery—but it certainly lends an air of mystery. What can we expect?

The medieval tale of Patient Griselda, a woman tested by her controlling husband to near breaking-point, has been re-told many times (including versions by Chaucer and Shakespeare). In Vivaldi’s opera, this becomes a study in the politics of power and identity played out in a society riven with instability. Tom Creed’s televisual production places the story in the present day: while the overture is playing a bank of screens on one side of the set shows footage from recent gilets jaunes protests in Paris. The set is split level: upstairs is a TV studio/meeting/throne room, all bland corporate minimalism, while downstairs is an off-screen corridor, backed with chip-board and scaffolding joists, plus a security box.

King Gualtiero (tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado) deals with the risk of public breakdown by divorcing lower-class Queen Griselda (mezzo-soprano Katie Bray). Maybe a younger, more upmarket bride will improve the national mood? If this sounds like a nightmare for Griselda, her problems are only just beginning. It is a toxic and provocative setup, yet surprisingly the only major changes to the original scenario are that the two mezzo roles of Corrado (Raphaela Mangan) and Ottone (Sinéad O’Kelly), originally male (one of them sung by a castrato, the other cross-dressed), are now female characters, matching gender to voice-type and adding a further twist to the play of identity.

The three mezzo-sopranos each offer something very different from each other, and the contained strength of Raphaela Mangan’s vocal depiction of Corrado is shot through with warmth and depth of tone. As Ottone, Sinéad O’Kelly is gifted three arias that are easily among the finest musical moments of the opera, each drawing superb accompaniment from the orchestra. Clearly relishing the high-stakes psychodrama of her role, O’Kelly sings with stunning virtuosity, and hearing her first aria (‘Vede orgogliosa l’onda’ – ‘seeing the proud wave’) alone, with its delicate expression, is a spine-tingling experience.

Attempting to sidestep these two figures, Katie Bray’s Griselda projects calm gravitas and vulnerability in equal measure, characterising the complex suffering of this character with compassion and fine musicianship, as well as the vivid drama of such moments as her first-act aria ‘Hor il cor già lacero’ (‘my heart torn by a thousand torments’). The second-act trio involving her, Colorado and soprano Emma Morwood (‘Non più regina’ – ‘no longer a queen…’) is especially memorable, with the three singers’ beautiful ensemble underpinning a vital moment of confrontation and recognition. Morwood, playing would-be ‘Second Queen’ Costanza, is also impressive throughout, singing with excellent tone and smooth agility.

Creed’s treatment of this intensely-plotted text brings the work’s class and identity politics into clear focus, using such elements as constant cctv footage (relaying both on- and off-stage movement) and moments of absolute silence to theatrical effect, adding to the brittle fragility of this insecure world. The music is by turns mercurial, sensitive, and brilliant, with Peter Whelan’s leadership drawing fine and natural performances from singers and Irish Baroque Orchestra instrumentalists alike. As theatre this production raises many questions, matching the sharp passions that underpin so much baroque art with an observant eye on present sensibilities. There are times when it feels as if the only way to experience the more adventurous theatricality of the eighteenth century nowadays is through opera, and this production may well leave audiences eager for more.

Antonio Vivaldi: Griselda
Sung in Italian (libretto by Apostolo Zeno, revised by Carlo Goldoni), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera
Conductor: Peter Whelan; Director: Tom Creed; Set & Costume Designer: Katie Davenport; Lighting Designer: Sinéad McKenna; Video Designer: Jack Phelan
Cast: Katie Bray (Griselda), Jorge Navarro Colorado (Gualtiero), Emma Morwood (Costanza), Sinéad O’Kelly (Ottone), Russell Harcourt (Roberto), Raphaela Mangan (Corrado)
Irish Baroque Orchestra

Photography by Pat Redmond