Monday, January 13, 2014

A Fierce Baroque Pasticcio

Opera Feroce’s Arminio in Armenia
Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church (Brooklyn Heights)
January 10, 2014

Opera seria in two acts
Music by Nicola Porpora (Germanico in Germania, Carlo il Calvo, Semiramide Riconosciuta, Agrippina)
Libretto by A. Sconosciuto

While I was having breakfast last Friday morning, social media told me that, in case I was in the mood for baroque, Vertical Player Repertory recommended Opera Feroce’s Arminio in Armenia, playing that same evening in a Brooklyn Heights church. Of course I am always in the mood for baroque, especially if performed by a company named Opera Feroce - “Fierce Opera” or, as they put it on their website, “opera that bites.” The advertisement had little yet intriguing information on the show, stating that it had been created “by cross-pollinating an original plot and a lot of great music by Nicola Porpora” and involved “Shipwreck! Sorcery! Swordfights! And Turkeys!” Also, tickets were “$20 at the door (with no one turned away).” This was more than enough to lure us to the Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, where we were rewarded with a most exhilarating and unique operatic experience.

Enticing flier for the cryptic event
Arminio in Armenia is a fun though seriously well-structured experiment that manages to repurpose delightful baroque arias in an approachable homage to the world of Italian opera seria. The piece is a baroque pastiche that rearranges arias from several of Nicola Porpora’s little-known operas and cantatas to fit an intricate plot where the fearless crusader Arminio is sent by the Pope to convert the Armenians to Catholicism, but ends up shipwrecked in Massachusetts, where he decides to convert the puritanical Pilgrims of the New World instead (!). Arminio’s adventures lead him to close encounters with Norberto, the uptight governor of Massachusetts, his twin peasant brother Adalberto, the latter’s love interest Clorofilla, the sorceress Tusnelda and the pilgrim maiden Genovinda.

Photo credit: Opera Feroce
The libretto is a combination of (mostly) original Italian arias and English recitatif. While on paper it sounds odd, it actually worked perfectly, playfully making the pasticcio feature crystal clear. I have to say that I liked this approach better than the Met’s Enchanted Island that kept the original music but re-wrote all the plundered arias in English. The beauty of the original Italian baroque arias is entirely lost if one slaps some English singing on them.

Opera Feroce admirably seems to have respected the integrity of the original Italian arias throughout, however, with one perhaps glaring and hilarious exception. In one of his stand out moments at the end of Act I, the quixotic governor belts out his mission as leader of his motley crew of Protestant refugees: “Miseri! I Pellegrini cercando la Terra Nuova / e la libertà dal Vaticano, da un barbaro / che mai non dimostrò pietà, che vuol / che i Pellegrini siano soggetti del Papa.”* For some reason, I just can’t imagine how such sentiments, which Norberto delivers in the pose of a rock-n-roll diva, could have fit anywhere into Porpora’s early eighteenth-century body of work.

Photo credit: Opera Feroce
Not only does this group have a sense of humor, but they also have vision. The first act in particular was brilliantly constructed with meticulous care placed on the layering of multiple subplots. After an action packed opening that features a storm at sea and a shipwreck, the cast of characters is introduced through a series of scenes that include more than one case of mistaken identities, intersecting triangles of amorous intrigue, magic spells and heightened religious and ideological tensions. The second act does not quite match the first in terms of care in composition and it seems to rush all too headlong toward a clean conclusion. While it is no less enjoyable, the payoff could be greater if they cultivated more of the narrative seeds planted in Act I, in which so many exciting characters came to life.

Although the show was advertised as a “re-premiere” concert (the piece was first performed in June 2012), it was actually a highly entertaining semi-staged performance, with singers jumping in and out of simple costumes, really acting and using props that ranged from turkey legs to magic wands. The three singers were all on double duty, each performing two very different characters. Mezzo-soprano Hayden DeWitt played the brave crusader Arminio and the pious pilgrim maiden Genovinda. Soprano Beth Anne Hatton was both the fierce witch Tusnelda and the Zerlina-like country girl Clorofilla. But it was Alan Dornak who showcased the widest range, switching back and forth from countertenor to baritone as Norberto and Adalberto, respectively. While all three were evidently having a lot of fun with the piece and had hilarious comic acting moments, they were quite serious about their singing, with excellent Italian articulation and great baroque musicality.

Beth Anne Hatton
Alan Dornak
Hayden DeWitt

The energy, passion and unassuming talent of these singers and the five-piece ensemble (violins, harpsichord, viola da gamba, traverso) were refreshing and left us wanting for more. The program mentions that sometime later this year we will have the pleasure of a fully staged costumed performance of this same piece. We will be sure to check out how Opera Feroce manages to improve this great material. Meanwhile, we’ll look forward to their next show, Magdalene’s Dilemma, an oratorio/mystery play with music by Giovanni Bonconcini – on February 6, as part of the Midtown Concert Series of the Gotham Early Music Scene.

- Lei & Lui

* “Miserable ones! The Pilgrims came in search / of the New world and freedom from the / Vatican and from a barbarian who never / showed any mercy, who wanted them to be / subjects of the Pope.”

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