Friday night, December 16, I was back in Harvard Square for more 17th-century opera, this time as part of the Longy Early Opera Project, Orontea by Antonio Cesti. The description of the opera on the event’s Facebook page, “a Madcap 17th-Century Comedy in Music,” says a lot, but the opera is also full of the pathos of anguished lovers, with the pathos sometimes becoming comic. Two major (and well-played) comic roles keep the opera lighthearted, and these characters also get drawn into the serious dénouement of the convoluted plot: a culmination of threats of a duel, accusations of theft, kidnappings and hidden identity, and of course, overlapping love triangles.
About the plot: well, I actually tried drawing myself a chart of the love triangles (were they parallelograms?), which all intersect with Alidoro, the male lead, a wandering painter. The Prologue begins with the pensive (and poverty-stricken) Filosofia (anthropomorphized Philosophy), goaded by the god of Love, Amore, an imperious child who rules the world. La Filosofia was given suitable gravitas by Alyssa Koogler, and Amore, playful innocence by Elise Groves. Amore, who gets the plot rolling (and entangling) is often an onlooker in the opera, but has no more singing.
The title character, Orontea, is the queen of a mythical Egypt, played with regal bearing and power by Jin Kim (Friday night). When we first meet her, she sings with conviction of rejecting love in order to hold on to her freedom and power over her realm. Creonte, a court advisor, offers his wisdom, that her subjects will expect her to marry and produce an heir, but Oreontea is adamant. For about 60 seconds, because then Alidoro enters the scene.
There were many instances when the nine instrumentalists – grouped in the program as “Orontea’s string band” (two violins, cello, and viola da gamba) and “basso continuo” (three harpsichords, a small organ, cello, viola da gamba, and two large lutes), provided an exhilarating range of instrumental color and musical energy. For instance the Sinfonia that began the event (borrowed from composer Marcello Uccelini, but serving aptly as an instrumental overture) featured the two violinists standing on opposite sides of the ensemble so they could toss their melodies back and forth.
Another striking effect was Orontea’s soliloquy, when she realizes that feelings of love are awakening in her. The accompaniment of viola da gamba alone underscores the stark poignancy of the moment. James Williamson was sensitive and virtuosic playing chords, bass line and some countermelody.
In the expressive sung speech of recitative each singer was underscored by his/her own instrumental ensemble, the groups going back and forth in the flexible exchanges and intense debates at which the fluid style of the era was so adept.
A comic showcase was provided by Gelone, the drunken servant. Justin Hicks brought the role both comic timing and a majestic and flexible bass voice. This was one of the singers whom I look forward to hearing again. Tibrino, a male servant (played with vigor by soprano Caitlin Hadeler), is often a counterpart to Gelone, at times clashing with him, in his brash, youthful aggressiveness, but at other times joining in the drunken fun: “To War! To War!” sings Tibrino with his sword raised, and Gelone answers “To Wine! To Wine!”
Another slapstick role is the (ostensive) mother of Alidoro, Aristea. This drag part was played with a gushy flirtatiousness by Ben Katz (Friday night). A strapping, hairy-chested, uh, linebacker (I may be out of my depth with that term), Katz batted his eyelashes, flounced his curls, fingered his lace, sung in a breathy alto and “enjoyed being a (middle-aged) girl.” Well, who wouldn’t?
Back to the love triangles. Silandra (a lady in waiting to Orontea) also falls for Alidoro, although Silandra must then spurn Corindo, a courtier. Silandra (played by Camila Parias, was dramatically sure, but with a cloying voice. Clare McNamara played Corindo with a lushly evocative mezzo (another voice I want to hear again), and over-the-top comic anguish for his/her lovelorn state. The “Cross-Gender Guide” provided by the program was a handy break-down for the who’s who of the line-up.
Giacinta (a woman concealing herself as a man) also falls for Alidoro; soprano Caitlin McCarville was powerful and expressive in this role. It’s all far beyond seeming a bit much when Aristea then falls for Giacinta, and resorts to bribery to get what she wants, she sings “Gold is love’s escort; a golden key opens all doors.” A sentiment that crosses boundaries of time, we might recall it as “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
Here in 1656 we see plenty of operatic conventions that are still going strong two centuries later in Gilbert and Sullivan (for instance, pirates as parents; abducted child raised thinking he is someone else; and ridiculing the middle-aged woman, … “There is no uglier monster than an amorous old women” – says Alidoro, in horror, of the woman who has raised him as a mother).
As Alidoro, Brian Gonzalez has some vocal power at mezzo-forte (or more) dynamic level, but was muddy or faltering at other times. It was hard to sense the charisma that makes him so magnetic to three women of the opera. The comic characters ultimately engage in the serious plot, revealing that Alidoro really is of noble birth and thus that he can be a suitable spouse for Orontea, without her needing to lower herself to loving a commoner.
The supertitles were projected on a wall next to the stage, and this had an advantage over the use of computer screens that are often used for this purpose: longer passages of text — several paragraphs — could be put up at a time (as opposed to just a line or two), making it easier for the audience to follow. Without supertitles (would lateraltitles be the literal term in this case?) you would miss the import of the quick banter, the interplay and intense engagement of the characters (I don’t know how we learned to love opera back in Olden Times …).
Over three hours in length, this opera holds ones attention with the fluidity of the musical language and the way the layers upon layers of plot complications do seem to be hurtling towards a joyful ending where everything somehow manages to fall into place.
As conductor and music director (at a harpsichord) Dana Maiben gave the musicians leadership when they needed it and stayed out of the way when they didn’t. Many complex artistic decisions have been made behind the scenes in a work like this; for instance adding the initial Sinfonia was a brilliant stroke, as modern audiences expect some instrumental prelude before the singers enter; only later did I notice that this was not part of the original work. Donna Roll was credited with the mise-en-scene which seemed entirely apt and enhancing the artistic content. One thing I missed was a lengthier program giving notes on all the musicians’ backgrounds (surely there’s an App for that so we can just download them right onto our phone gizmos??).