‘It’s really exciting to sing but it has its challenges’: Emma Morwood on the Arias of Griselda
A little under two decades after he wrote The Four Seasons, Vivaldi premiered his three-act opera Griselda, the story of a king who marries a shepherdess, Griselda, but is then forced to abandon her due to political pressure to marry the young Costanza. Like the violin concertos, the opera too has exciting writing for strings, but there’s one surprise: he expects the singers to do what a violin does.
‘It’s very challenging,’ soprano Emma Morwood told the Journal of Music. ‘It challenges all of the singers… it is slightly violinistic… with the repeated notes and the range that’s required.’ Morwood, from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland but now based in Edinburgh, has the role of Costanza and has the most famous aria from the opera, ‘Agitata da due venti’ (‘Agitated by two winds’), which is also one of the most difficult. It comes at the point where Costanza is caught between her lover and the duty of marrying the king. She’s ‘torn between duty and love… and you can hear that in the music – it’s so frenetic…. It’s really exciting to sing but it has its challenges.’
The work requires runs of semi-quavers and dozens of repeated notes, as well as a range going from the G below middle C right up to a high B-flat. The key to learning it, says Morwood, was to give it time.
I’ve been working on these arias for quite a long time… It’s getting it into your body… You need to get the muscular memory and the strength. My kids know my arias. My four-year-old daughter has been known to sing sections of ‘Agitata da due venti’ around the house because she has heard it so many times.
But how did Vivaldi expect singers to be able to perform these arias in the 1700s?
They kind of used a different technique. They didn’t really think about opera singing in the way that we do. The voices would have been much smaller for a start. As opera singers, the technique that we use is that the larynx is lowered and we use our head like a speaker… In those days the singing voices would have been a lot reedier, a lot thinner… and actually a lot of these roles would have been sung by castrati… and Vivaldi would have written all of these roles for specific singers.
Nonetheless, Morwood’s aria in Act III titled ‘Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori’ (‘Empty shadows, groundless terrors’) is a complete contrast. ‘It is a stunner,’ says Marwood. ‘That’s an aria that people should be singing in auditions and competitions all over. I love that aria. That’s definitely going in my audition folder. I’d never done it before.’
‘Ombre vane’ begins with a stately accompaniment with a beautiful baroque harmonic sequence. At this stage, Costanza is in the palace.
Her boyfriend has brought her to the palace to marry the king and the king has just told her that it’s OK if she keeps her boyfriend … He doesn’t care if she has a lover. So she’s really confused and she’s asking for all of the horrible feelings … to leave her body. … And then there’s this fabulous fast section in the middle where she goes mad.
Baroque and contemporary
Morwood often works in baroque music, but in contemporary music too.
I really enjoy doing baroque. I also really enjoy doing contemporary and the two often go hand in hand because the musicality you need to sing baroque would follow through for contemporary music as well, and often for contemporary music they like a straighter tone.
Last year she performed in Opera Collective Ireland’s The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi and she has also performed work by James MacMillan and Stephen Pratt.
A third aria from Griselda that Morwood really enjoys singing is the trio called ‘Non Piu regina’ (‘No longer a queen’), which she sings with Griselda (Katie Bray) and the king, Gualtiero (Jorge Navarro Colorado).
Vivaldi knew how to write beautiful tunes and harmonies and he really gets it right in this trio.
The trio takes place in Act II when Griselda has been told that she’s going to be a maid to her husband and his new wife, in her own house.
Costanza is trying to get the king to show pity to his ex-wife, and Gualtiero is telling them both that they need to treat him with more respect because he’s the king… [it’s] a real musical highlight of the whole piece.
Despite the fortunes of some of the women in the opera, the music is surprisingly upbeat and the Irish Baroque Orchestra, says Morwood, ‘are playing their sock off. They’re fantastic. Peter Whelan at the helm is doing such a great job. They play with such excitement.’
I was sitting in the sitzprobe [first rehearsal for singers and orchestra together] with a smile on my face all day long . A lot of it is really feel-good music.
Griselda opens at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway on Saturday 12 October and then visits An Grianán, Letterkenny (15th), Hawk’s Well Theatre (17th), Solstice Arts Centre, Navan (19th), Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny (22nd), Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick (24th), and Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire (26th and 27th – both dates sold out). For booking, visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.
This preview is supported by Irish National Opera.