Music and Artistic Directors Dylan Sauerwald and Zoe Weiss along with Stage Director Aria Umezawa re-imagined their new Helios Early Opera production of Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Artemisia a la La La Land (that’s L.A., as in Hollywood, folks!) with a whiff of Chanel No. 5. Performed and sung in its original Italian, this production’s acknowledgment of its platitudinous, paparazzi plot churned out tongue in cheek super titles, translating into the timely variety of tabloid fodder currently stocking the pharmacy shelves. I attended yesterday’s preview. Public performances are tonight and tomorrow at the Somerville Center for the Arts at the Armory.
With Valentine’s Day already being commercialized, a cast of superb musicians seasonally serenaded the audience as a mismatched menagerie of miserably love-sick characters in a copious, melodiously lyrical array of Italian soliloquies—all poetically illustrating the sentiment, “Love Stinks!”
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win
That pretty much sums up the situation, but here is a rundown of reasons to come see it. First of all, the singing was wonderful. Sensitively delivered in this production, Cavalli sounded effortless in the voice and easy on the ears. The evolutionary beginnings of bel canto, with its naturally fluid sensibilities, can be detected as historically rooted in this period, in which opera was emancipated from court to become a truly popular form of entertainment. Cavalli’s word painting through phrasing and melisma is both accessible to an audience and decipherable by a performer being asked to communicate its emotional content. Second of all, the cast Umezawa directed has some really good actors in it and worked well together as an ensemble. But before going into details, you might need a chart to keep the characters straight, so here is an organized list:
Couple No. 1: Artemisia and Meraspe. Artemisia is a recently widowed Hollywood starlet with (to quote the program notes) “the hots for her pool boy,” Clitarco (sung by a counter-tenor; let’s just steer clear of any etymological suspicion, shall we?) who is really Meraspe, “Chief Executive of Paramount,” in disguise, and is hiding from the authorities because he is suspected of murdering Artemisia’s husband who really died in a swimming accident. Thus, she can’t proclaim her love of her lowly employee for fear of a tabloid scandal, and although he singularly adores her, Meraspe can’t reveal his true identity and therefore can’t proclaim his love either.
Couple No. 2: Artemia and Ramiro. Artemia is the best friend of Artemisia and is unrequitedly in love with Meraspe. Ramiro, Meraspe’s friend, who is also part of Artemisia’s entourage, is in love with Artemia, but Artemia will have none of him. Artemia is a spirited, red-headed, fem sorority girl, donned in yellow sweater and matching yellow shoes. Ramiro, also a soprano, is a grunge butch in focused pursuit of his/her prize.
Couple No. 3: Alindo and Oronta. Alindo is Artemisia’s agent who has a wild crush on Artemisia, and dumps Oronta, “Editor in Chief at Vogue,” to pursue Artemisia, who can barely stand him. In a desperate attempt to get her man back, Oronta disguises herself as Alindo’s personal assistant.
Despite the potential ludicrousness of this au courant staging of a 17th century opera, Julianne Gearhart’s performance as Artemisia held the power to engage an audience’s suspension of disbelief and enchant them into engaging with the story. Glamorous both in looks and poise, she also conveyed a seductive, emotional vulnerability, which was completely convincing as a charismatic, Italian starlet; all while displaying a singing voice and sense of musicianship as exquisitely stunning as her looks. In contrast, Andrew Pickett as Meraspe was more like the John-Boy Walton next door with Hugh Grant shyness. For three acts, these two did a Notting Hill dance of confusing signals until conventional commedia dell’arte plot device came to the rescue.
Dawn Bailey, soprano, as Artemia, was passionate, fiery and vivacious, and carried a meaty portion of the production, executing a number of arias with great virtuosic facility. Her sidekick, Margot Rood, soprano, as Ramiro, was equally strong as a character actress in the role of a butch pants part; a convincing suitor with masculine swagger complementing Bailey’s ingénue.
There was an array of comic characters and great gags, such as Indamoro, Artemisia’s sassy gay “bear in shorts”; and Niso, Oronta’s bored personal assistant who leans more toward “sassy gay fabulous.” Then there was Eurillo, Artemisia’s Kardashian-style sister, star wannabe. Her beautiful, long hair and pouty lips could not compensate for her lack of brains and feeble attempts at J.Lo’s moves, which may explain why she hadn’t quite managed to achieve the level of superstardom comparable to her sister.
Most hilarious of all was Marcio de Oliveira in drag as Erisbe; a ditzy Mrs. Doubtfire prototype who longs to recapture the beauty of her youth. To do it right would realistically require bikini wax, a yoga instructor to correct her horribly slumping posture, implants to give her a seriously needed ‘perk,’ and copious Omega 3s to condition her thinning hair. But she’s still got a great pair of legs!!
Gags could also be found in the accompaniment and set design. There were references to popular rock songs embedded in the instrumental music. Blown up headshots of Artemisia in black and white, and an easel display of her cover girl spread for “Anatolian Magazine” replete with beauty tips to tantalize the tabloid connoisseur, served for a backdrop. Be sure to take a moment to check out the clever and amusing plot references.
The orchestra with one string to a part also contained some interesting early instruments: lirone, dulcian, harpsichord, organ, 3 theorbos, 2 Baroque guitars, and a triple harp. Sauerwald and Weiss led the lively players from their respective instruments—harpsichord and organ for the former and bass violin for the latter. The sound was generous and well balanced in the space.
Artemisia will be given its North American premiere tonight, Friday January 18th with a repeat performance the following evening, Saturday January 19th at 7:30pm at the Somerville Center for the Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA.