Saturday, June 13, 2015

Venetian Ghosts from the Baroque Past

Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragona
Dock Street Theater – May 30, 2015
Spoleto Festival USA

Amazon warriors in formation.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
It was a warm early summer night in old Charleston as we took our seats in the balcony of the historic (1736) and exquisitely charming Dock Street Theater. As the lights went down, a thick fog engulfed the stage, two spectral figures wearing Venetian carnival masks emerged from it and baroque music erupted from the pit. And so began the modern-day premiere of Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona, exhumed from a decrepit manuscript at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice on a Spoleto Festival commission. The intrepid Aaron Carpenè (conductor) and Stefano Virzioli (director) conjured the ghosts of this baroque opera straight from the seventeenth century (by way of this initial spectral fog), giving us the thrill of experiencing for the first time a work that has not been performed since 1653.

The historic Dock Street Theater.
Photo credit: Opera News
Saying that the plot is complex is an understatement. We’re in Gibraltar, during the Spanish siege of the Moorish fort of Calpe, which is taking quite a long time, basically because the general leading the Spanish army (Delio) has a secret love affair with the Moorish queen (Zelemina). The Spanish queen (Veremonda) is quite upset with the ineptitude of her general, not to mention with her husband, a king who is more interested in astronomy studies than in war (or even his wife). Veremonda decides to take matters into her own hands and puts together a contingent of “amazons” (her ladies-in-waiting repurposed in shiny sexy armor) and, after many convoluted adventures and sidebars, she successfully leads them to victory and ends the war (without ever really needing to fight). The Moorish queen converts, marries Delio and everybody’s happy.

Veremonda battagliera.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
All this would be linear enough, if it was not for Delio having an old grudge against Veremonda but also being very aroused by her and trying to rape her in the woods (which leads her to pretend to fall in love with him in order to escape his advances). Or for Zelemina also being wildly attracted to Veremonda (disguised as a soldier) and then immediately throwing a jealous fit thinking that Delio is cheating on her with the amazon queen. Or the subplot of Delio’s servant having a crush now on Zelemina’s nurse (Zaida), now on one of the amazons (Vespina). Or the inexplicable non-sequitur of the “dance of the bulls” at Zelemina’s court...

While I was initially taken a bit aback from the absurdity of the plot, once I stopped trying to make coherent sense out of it and just rolled with whatever was thrown at us, I really started to have a lot of fun.  At the end of the day, this opera was composed to entertain the paying Venetian public during Carnevale and that’s exactly what it does, one crazy transgressive plot twist after the other. Cavalli and his librettist Giulio Strozzi set the stage for this semi-serious work from the opening scene. In the prologue, Twilight exhorts the audience to enjoy the evening's entertainment, while the setting Sun warns the ladies that their own splendor is destined to fade.

The astronomer king girds himself for war.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Director Stefano Virzioli was very successful in bringing the story to life with the right dose of lightness and humor, using commedia dell’arte styles for the comic relief bits and only rarely falling into slapstick (even when characters deliver saucy lines such as “E’ quello che fanno le donne d’oggi dí / e come si suol dir, disse di sí’”*). Virzioli fully embraced the entertaining spirit of the piece with sass. Think of the astronomer king becoming pompously belligerent and exiting the stage on a wooden ramping white horse. Or the hilarious war training of the “amazons” who struggle to even lift a sword. The idea of having the characters emerge from the fog in the prologue and disappear into it in the finale was also a very poetic touch.

Zelemina in her bath.
Photo credit: Amadeus Online
The sets were hyper-colorful and stylized panels and screens created by visual artist Ugo Nespolo. I conceptually liked the two-dimensional approach to the sets as that was how scenes were done back in the 1600’s, the execution though was hit or miss. While I enjoyed the “forest” and “Moorish bathhouse” scenes for their multiple layers that filled the depth of the stage, I was not too engaged by the “war” and “astronomy” scenes, which felt a bit too flat and abstract. While I am usually not too crazy about ballet intermezzos in operas, the choreographies by Pierluigi Vanelli were extremely enjoyable crowd-pleasers, from the amazon’s training gymnastics to the inexplicable “dance of the bulls.”

Delio gets his way.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The real hero of the night was maestro Aaron Carpenè for the herculean archeological efforts that went into transforming a messy 1652 manuscript into a fully orchestrated score. The challenges of this task were not only the lack of specification of the instruments used but also the very skeletal representation of what would have been actually played, based on the assumption that musicians of the time usually riffed on themes as they went (how very jazzy of them). Carpenè spiced things up by adding castanets to the percussion section, highlighting the exotic flair of the opera, and the ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated sounded both airy and fiery at the same time, bringing to life the resuscitated score in the most pleasurable way for the 2015 audience.

Veremonda in the midst of her transformation.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Baroque specialist mezzo Vivica Genaux in the title role was the superstar in the cast and I was very much looking forward to seeing her live. Ms. Genaux has incredibly charismatic stage presence, equally at ease (and truly fabulous looking) in frilly fairy-tale queen gowns and sexy leather leggings, silver boots and amazon armor. Her acting was very specific as she embodied the strong-willed queen turned Amazon warrior, however, the Veremonda role did not give Ms. Genaux much to work with vocally, other than a lot of baroque recitatives and a small handful of arias, none of which were particularly show-stopping. Knowing what Vivica is capable of when it comes to baroque pyrotechnics, I was a bit disappointed that as Veremonda she really did not get a chance to unleash her signature fiery vocal agility. Don’t get me wrong, she sounded and looked amazing and her performance was definitely masterful, but her talents felt way under-utilized here. Still, I do get the ticket selling power of Vivica Genaux for the premiere of a baroque rarity (worked on me!).

Delio and his prey.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Despite the fluidity with which Veremonda is able to transgress normative gender roles, she does not really come across as the most prominent or dramatically complex character. Rather, Delio (the double-faced lusty army general) seems to play a more central role both plot-wise and vocally, with a far more dynamic musical stage presence and flashier arias than the title role. Interestingly, this opera was originally supposed to be named “Delio,” but Cavalli and his librettist Strozzi decided against it because it would have sounded too much like “Celio,” an opera of 1646 by Cicognini on which Veremonda’s libretto is largely based. So, it is not surprising that the juiciest role is that of Delio, in this production played by countertenor Raffaele Pe, who to me really was the vocal star of the opera.

Gran tormento è l'esser bello.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Mr. Pe is a rambunctious, little countertenor who exuded all the self-important narcissism that an international playboy ought to possess (one of his major arias is “Gran tormento è l’esser bello”**). Vocally he really embodied all the melismatic fireworks demanded of him by the score, which can be a rarity in the castrati deprived world in which we live. Somehow he managed to be both manly and musically composed in the upper register of his countertenor voice. He was a pleasure to listen to, never dragging as he sang his long baroque lines and always forceful whether he was attempting to force himself on the Amazon queen in the forest or trying to seduce the Arab queen through the wall of her palatial, if cartoonish, bathing complex, his duets with the two women really being the musical highlights of the evening.

Zelemina flees her predator.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Right up there with Pe was soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, who sang the role of the Moorish queen Zelemina with stirring passion. She belted out her arias of love and longing with crisp, clean lines and a sound that pierced the air in the intimate theater. Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli was definitely one of the highlights of the show. She sang with an intensity that seemed to stop time anytime she was in the spotlight, she so commanded the attention of the audience, particularly in her final aria “Invitta Veremonda.”*** Also noteworthy was mezzo Céline Ricci as the “Amazon” Vespina, who had great comic stage presence and showcased some very agile coloratura.

Gently down the stream.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The rest of the cast had smaller roles in the very complicated plot and all in all delivered a solid performance as an ensemble and team effort (as it’s typical for 17th century opera): bass Joseph Barron (Roldano), baritones Jason Budd (Giacutte) and Steven Cole (Don Buscone), tenor Brian Downen (Zeffiro / Crepuscolo), countertenors Michael Maniaci (Zaida) and Anrey Nemzer (Re Alfonso / Sole) and soprano Danielle Talamantes (Sergente).

Most of all, this evening was about the excitement of discovering a fully staged opera that has not been performed for over 350 years as if it were a brand new piece and actually having a lot of fun with it. Thank you Spoleto Festival USA for the bravery in commissioning its resurrection.

- Lei & Lui

Ugo Nespolo's surreal sets.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Amazons ready themselves for battle.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn 
Delio can't keep his hands to himself.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Feigned romance.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Commedia dell'arte touches abound.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Fading back into the mists of time.
Photo credit: Post and Courier

* That’s what women do today / as the say goes, she “said yes”
** Being handsome is such a big torment
*** Undefeated Veremonda

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