16 May 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Spoleto Festival USA and a world-class cast resurrect Pier Francesco Cavalli’s 1652 epic VEREMONDA, L’AMAZZONE DI ARAGONA

 ARTS IN ACTION: Spoleto Festival USA revives Pier Francesco Cavalli's VEREMONDA [Image: 'La rendición de Granada' by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, from the collection of the Capilla Real, Granada]

When Don Luis Méndoz de Haro and Cardinal Mazarin met in 1659 on the Isla de los Faisanes in the middle of the Bidasoa River as the proxies of the Hapsburg Spanish and Bourbon French crowns, the Treaty of the Pyrenees that arose from their diplomacy ended a quarter-century of conflict between Spain and France that paralleled the broader Thirty Years' War that devastated much of northern Europe in the first half of the Seventeenth Century. The foundations of the regional politics that upset the balance of daily life in Spain even now, sometimes in tragic eruptions of violence that echo the 1640 Corpus de Sang, were already strongly fortified when, angered by Spanish abuses of Catalan troops and citizens during the Thirty Years’ War, the people of Catalonia rebelled against their Hapsburg oppressors, capitalizing on the differing agendas and distractions of the French and Spanish. This revolt perpetuated war between the neighbors across the Pyrenees that persisted after the Peace of Westphalia ended the hostilities of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Though this clash of imperial ambitions would persist for another seven years, destiny deserted the proud Catalan when the Spanish captured Barcelona in 1652, capitulating Catalonia to Hapsburg dominion and solidifying Spain’s border with France. It was into this tempestuous environment that Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona was born. Premièred at the Nuovo Teatro del Palazzo Reale in Naples—another sparkling but problematic jewel in the Spanish Hapsburg crown—on 21 December 1652, the opera was an obvious paean to the Spanish conquest of Barcelona and expulsion of the Moors, its depiction of the 1462 conquest and annexation of Gibraltar by Enrique IV of Castile and the subsequent 1492 victory of his daughter Isabella I of Castile and her consort Ferdinand II of Aragon—Spain’s lionized reyes católicos, restyled by Cavalli and his librettists as Veremonda and Alfonso—over the Moorish Emirate of Granada [sailing the ocean blue was not all the royal couple had on their minds in that fateful year] standing in handily for the Spanish suppression of the Catalan revolt. Both the propagandizing and Cavalli’s music evidently proved palatable: scarcely more than a month passed before Veremonda was performed in Venice’s Teatro SS Giovanni e Paolo on 28 January 1653. It is baffling to observe that a plot as startlingly modern as that of Veremonda has been so long overlooked by conductors, directors, and singers whilst the ancient and mythological denizens of Cavalli operas such as La Calisto, Ercole amante, Giasone, and Xerse—characters who Sir Peter Shaffer’s Mozart might accuse of defecating marble—have regained footholds along the sidelines of today’s operatic playing field. Histories musical and anthropological reveal that a woman like Veremonda will not be silenced forever, but where she will be heard depends upon a fortuitous arrangement of circumstances. Fortuitous indeed are the circumstances that bring Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona to the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina: 362 years after maiden voyages, Veremonda will trade the Golfo di Napoli and Canałasso for the Ashley and Cooper and drop anchor at the Dock Street Theatre in a production poised not only to resurrect but also to revitalize this mesmerizing collision of art and politics.

A queen regnant with both tremendous political power and the intelligence and wherewithal to wield it effectively, Isabella I was an anomaly in the predominantly primogenital social order of her time. That the Seventeenth-Century librettists who retrieved her from the recesses of history and repurposed her for the operatic stage with a symbolic Amazon slant seem somewhat chauvinistic from a Twenty-First-Century perspective is perhaps inevitable, but removing the operatic Veremonda from her singular historical context diminishes the impact of her histrionic power. She will be sung in Charleston by Fairbanks-born mezzo-soprano—and Spoleto USA débutante—Vivica Genaux, one of the few singers in the world whose dynamic dramatic instincts are equaled by her astounding bravura technique. Having in the recent past sung Händel’s Giulio Cesare and Ruggiero (Alcina), Purcell’s Dido, and Veracini’s Farnaspe (Adriano in Siria), Ms. Genaux is adept at portraying characters in extremis on both sides of the gender divide. As a woman of irrefutable power tested by the mores of a patriarchal society, Veremonda is not unlike Purcell’s long-suffering Queen of Carthage: more than a few Didos would surely have welcomed the notion of gathering an army of sympathetic ladies to punish Aeneas’s betrayal! Ms. Genaux excels at bringing nuanced characters to life without overdoing their emotions, and she is an ideal musical conduit for the dramatic electricity of Cavalli’s score, her inimitable vocal technique mirroring Veremonda’s no-holds-barred manner of taking charge of every situation in which she finds herself.

ARTS IN ACTION: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX rehearsing for Spoleto Festival USA's production of Cavalli's VEREMONDA, L'AMAZZONE DI ARAGONA; May 2015 [Photo by Aaron Carpenè; used with permission]Una bella amazzone: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux (center), who will sing the title rôle in Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona, in rehearsal; May 2015 [Photo by Aaron Carpenè; used with permission]

Aaron Carpenè, the Perth native and renowned Early Music specialist who prepared the score of Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona for the Spoleto USA production and will conduct the performances, cites the team of exceptional musicians assembled for the production as one of the greatest pleasures encountered in the initiative to breathe new life into Cavalli’s score. ‘We are proud to be working with a wonderful international cast led by Vivica Genaux and accompanied by the period instrument ensemble New York Baroque Inc.,’ he said recently. ‘We are [also] fortunate to have the prize-winning photographer Michel Juvet and author Allison Zurfluh, who will be publishing a book on the Veremonda production. It will include chapters on Cavalli, his life in Venice and the manuscript still conserved there today, the pre-production preparation with fascinating peeks into Ugo Nespolo’s art studio in Turin and the Oscar®-winning costume atelier Farani in Rome, as well as the backstage rehearsal work and première performance in Charleston. The book will be a fine souvenir of this extraordinary event.’

The wonderful international cast mentioned by Maestro Carpenè brings together a group of young singers already celebrated for musical and stylistic excellence. A like-minded partner for Ms. Genaux both on stage and on disc [their critically-lauded deutsche harmonia mundi studio recording of Johann Adolf Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra will be followed in autumn 2015 by fra bernardo’s release of a recording of their 2014 concert performance of Ferdinando Bertoni’s L’Orfeo], golden-throated Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli will portray Zelemina in Veremonda, bringing a wealth of experience in Baroque repertory to her reunion with Ms. Genaux. One of the finest young representatives of his Fach, handsome Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè will make his American operatic début in the rôle of Delio—a part so critical to the plot that his name serves as the alternate title for Cavalli’s opera. Another pair of gifted countertenors will lend further period-appropriate singing to the production, the impersonations of Zaida by high-voiced Michael Maniaci and of Don Alfonso and il Sole in the opera’s prologue by Andrey Nemzer, a youthful veteran of the 2013 revival of the much-discussed Herbert Wernicke production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera, sure to be highlights of Spoleto USA’s Veremonda. Bass-baritone Joseph Barron’s Roldano, baritone Jason Budd’s Giacutte, tenor Steven Cole’s Don Buscone, and tenor Brian Downen’s Zeriffo and il Crepuscolo also promise musical flair. As the guiding force behind San Francisco-based Ars Minerva and the sagacious director and leading lady in that organization’s March 2015 modern-première performances of Daniele da Castrovillari’s 1662 opera La Cleopatra, coloratura mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci brings to her performances as Vespina in Veremonda vital experience with recreating a neglected operatic gem with complementary historically-informed practices and modern sensibilities. Completing the cast as the Sergente maggiore, a rôle that, as Maestro Carpenè notes, presents challenges to modern musicologists as the part’s tessitura shifts from bass to soprano halfway through the manuscript score, soprano Danielle Talamantes comes to Charleston for her first travesti rôle after an acclaimed turn as Frasquita in Bizet’s Carmen at the MET.

An authority on music of Veremonda’s vintage, Maestro Carpenè is uncommonly attentive to the daunting task that reviving forgotten scores poses to even the most insightful artists. ‘There are many challenges in preparing a score from a manuscript,’ he states, ‘but, in particular for Veremonda, one of the great challenges was dealing with what is known as Cavalli’s messiest manuscript. There are evidently the hands of at least two copyists; Cavalli’s own hand in corrections, cancellations, and additions; and lastly [that of] Cavalli’s wife Maria, who also helped out in both copying and composing. Cavalli’s handwriting appears hasty and untidy, while the copyists—who presumably replaced Maria since she died in the same year as the production of the opera, 1652—have neat handwriting but present numerous musical errors which have to be corrected.’ Solving these problems, the Maestro muses, is only one facet of the endeavor of restoring an opera like Veremonda to its original glory. ‘A further challenge in bringing this opera back to life for a contemporary audience is the decision related to the style of production,’ he intimates. ‘Should a world première in modern times seek to propose a philological reinterpretation that reflects what Cavalli’s audiences would have seen and heard in 1652, or should there be a reinterpretation that reflects modern day tastes?’

ARTS IN ACTION: Countertenor RAFFAELE PÈ rehearsing for his portrayal of Delio in Spoleto Festival USA's production of Cavalli's VEREMONDA, L'AMAZZONE DI ARAGONA; May 2015 [Photo by Aaron Carpenè; used with permission]Delio divino: Countertenor Raffaele Pè in rehearsal for his portrayal of Delio in Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona; May 2015 [Photo by Aaron Carpenè; used with permission]

At this point, Maestro Carpenè’s thoughts turn to the inception of Spoleto USA’s production of Veremonda—a groundbreaking project typical of the Festival’s enterprising spirit. ‘It was the Spoleto Festival’s director, Nigel Redden, who proposed [Veremonda] to stage director Stefano Vizioli and myself,’ he recollects. ‘Having accepted the offer, the principal attraction of the project was the challenge of preparing a production score from the manuscript and then working in an organic way with Vizioli in the development of the staging concept that determines aspects such as sets and costumes based on our perception of what the music and the libretto were trying to express. We decided, for example, to work with one of Italy’s most famous contemporary artists, Ugo Nespolo. His colorful and vibrant style evokes a striking Mediterranean zest, and the sets themselves, perfectly suited to the Baroque dimensions of the USA’s oldest theatre—the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, built in 1736 [the present structure was constructed in 1809, following a devastating fire],—actually follow closely the Baroque grammar of stagecraft. To create a philological production of what Cavalli’s audience might have seen would have been an interesting exercise, but we felt that some of the themes of the opera—the conflict between Christians and Muslims, the questions of gender and rôles in society—were just as relevant today as they were to those audiences and that the argument for a more ‘contemporary’ staging seemed to be more pressing. For me personally, an historically-informed approach is the starting point, not the finishing line. So while I am being very attentive to the Cavalli singing style of recitar cantando, the employment of period instruments, the appropriate pitch and tuning, and so forth, I feel that the message of the opera has to speak in the most accessible way possible to an audience of today.’

Spoleto USA and Charleston are ideal venues for the rediscovery of Veremonda, Maestro Carpenè feels. ‘The Spoleto Festival in Charleston prides itself on presenting little- or unknown works and artists to their audiences,’ he reflects. ‘Only recently, the festival director, Nigel Redden, proudly spoke of his policy of not presenting the familiar to his audiences but, rather, cultivating them and their curiosity in embracing the unfamiliar. Yet another Tosca or Traviata can be easily seen in any major opera theatre throughout the world: Veremonda has the privilege of [a] world première in modern times, just over 360 years since its original performance, at this festival.’ Moreover, the conductor suggests, both recent events and the annals of Charleston’s storied past as a cradle of the American Civil War make the city a fitting backdrop for the angst of Veremonda. ‘With respect to the [original] performance date, it is a story based on relatively recent history, in contrast to the mythical subjects found in Ercole amante, La Didone or La Calisto or more ancient historical references in Muzio Scevola or Il Xerse,’ he explains. ‘Veremonda is also unique because of the way the libretto was composed. Giulio Strozzi, writing under the pseudonym Luigi Zorzisto, took an earlier Florentine libretto entitled Celio by his colleague Giacinto Andrea Cicognini and literally copied and pasted much of the material to form a new libretto designed to entertain Venetian audiences. In many other ways, in style and form, Veremonda is quite close to the other masterpieces such as Giasone and La Calisto, and it is a great honor and privilege to be able to present this glorious music to a modern audience.’

Veremonda is an experience that will linger in the minds of Spoleto USA audiences for years to come, Maestro Carpenè believes. ‘There will be many things to remember: the fine singing, the skillful orchestral accompaniment, the enthralling staging, the artwork of the sets,’ he says with pride. ‘But besides all of this,’ he continues, ‘I would like the Spoleto audience to remember an unique and historical event; the resurrection of a long-forgotten opera by the most important opera composer of the day, whose operas helped shape the destiny of musical theatre performance that we know today.’ This, he suggests, is the greatest reward of the exhausting process of bringing Veremonda to Charleston. ‘To follow the growth and development of the project through all its phases, from the viewing of the old manuscript in the Marciana Library of Venice, to the transcription of the music and text, the elaboration of the staging, and finally the rehearsals with cast and orchestra with the mounting of the staging leading up to the première—to see and experience the final product is a great source of satisfaction.’

That satisfaction seems certain to be shared by cast, production team, and audiences alike. In advance of opening night, Spoleto Festival USA will offer a ‘Salon Series’ preview on Wednesday, 20 May. Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona opens at the Dock Street Theatre on Saturday, 23 May. Additional performances are scheduled for 26 and 30 May and 2 and 5 June.

ARTS IN ACTION: Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602 - 1767), composer of VEREMONDA, L'AMAZZONE DI ARAGONA, returning to the stage at the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA [17th-Century engraving]Prima la musica: Pier Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676), composer of Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona, returning to the stage after 362 years at the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA [17th-Century engraving from private collection]