Simone Weil, the inspiring French social activist, intellectual and philosopher of the spirit, wrote in 1943, the last year of her life, that “at the center of the human heart is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.”
Peter Sellars, the creative force behind the Santa Fe Opera’s affecting new production of Vivaldi’s Griselda, knows a thing or two about Weil. In 2006, he staged the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio, The Passion of Simone, a dramatized pastiche of Weil’s often aphoristic thoughts on spiritual life as well as the necessity of political engagement.
The relevance of Weil to Griselda? Just wait. Vivaldi’s 1735 opera, set to Carlo Goldoni’s text, is only one of countless literary and musical treatments of the fable from the 14th century on. A ruler, seeking to test the virtue of his wife, subjects her to indignity after indignity: public humiliation, expulsion and exile, separation from her children, household servitude. Griselda’s patience and obedience remain steadfast throughout her suffering, her “passion.” It’s a tale of cruel persecution of the innocent, and its allegorical significance has been much debated over the centuries.
Weil’s aphorism, with its echo of Pascal, implies a method for transcending the fable’s deep unpleasantness. In the SFO’s new production, Griselda becomes a divine paradox, a worldly image of, in Weil’s terms, the “absolute good” we long for. The supremely secular opera house becomes a source of spiritual instruction.
Note especially one of Sellars’ bold interpolations. Baroque opera has always been subject to musical excision, revision, addition. Neither scores nor libretti were seen as sacred. In the current production, Sellars replaces Griselda’s final aria—a dullish, barky piece—with the opening strophe of Vivaldi’s sublime Stabat Mater. The opera’s equally sublime heroine becomes both suffering servant and sorrowful mother, a human archetype of the absolute.
Meredith Arwady’s Griselda makes this the spiritual and emotional centerpiece of the opera. Her rich, dark, true contralto embodies her patience in the face of whimsical cruelty and confused self-interest. Arwady’s brief, deeply moving Stabat Mater gathers the opera into an effective whole.
Rarely has the SFO assembled a cast this uniformly brilliant. Many of the opera’s 19 virtuosic arias portray the singer as whipped between opposing forces: fierce, contrary winds—a steersman contending with a storm. In the opera’s best-known aria, the punishing “Agitata da due venti,” Isabel Leonard as Costanza, Griselda’s “lost” daughter, negotiates perilous passages with ease and conviction. Throughout the opera, as here, hyperemotional passagework transcends mere showy pyrotechnics. Amanda Majeski, as the villainous Ottone, simply astonishes, especially in her extraordinary final aria. Paul Groves sings with style and verve as Gualtiero, the morally ambiguous ruler of Thessaly.
Countertenor David Daniels, scheduled to sing Roberto, Costanza’s beloved, took violently ill just a few hours before the opening. Jason Abrams, his cover, sang accurately, with grace. As Corrado, Roberto’s sympathetic brother, Ukrainian countertenor Yuri Minenko made a fine impression in his two dramatic arias. The small orchestra, led by Grant Gershon, offered assured, balanced support.
Sellars’ concept of the action is both dreamlike and nightmarish. He creates a visual, probably controversial landscape of its own time and place, abetted by familiar resources: Gronk’s stimulating set painting; James F Ingalls’ fluid lighting; Dunya Ramicova’s witty costumes.
As spiritual drama, this remarkably original reading of Griselda can’t compete with, say, Dialogues des carmélites or Xavier Beauvois’ recent film Of Gods and Men. But as a moral and, excuse me, tropological interpretation of Vivaldi’s opera, it’s a stunner. The SFO, one more time, has put it all together.