There are in the cumulative history of opera many chapters that are sadly incomplete or can only be interpreted with the aid of ingenious musical gumshoeing. The path from Peri to Heggie has covered such extensive terrain that it is inevitable that even some vitally important landmarks have vanished from surveys of operatic topography. Nearly 340 years after the composer's death in 1676, the assertion that Pier Francesco Cavalli exerted influence on the development of opera as great as that wielded by Claudio Monteverdi is now unlikely to be contested. Indeed, not unlike the manner in which the pervasiveness of Mozart's innovation has been reassessed as the work of composers like Mysliveček has emerged from centuries of neglect, scholarship in the past quarter-century has awarded Cavalli a far greater share of credit for guiding opera into its adolescence than he enjoyed in previous generations. Born in Lombardia in 1602, Cavalli, like Monteverdi, had an exceptionally long life for a man of his time: having joined the choir of Venice's Basilica di San Marco in 1616, his career as a musician spanned six decades. Cognizance of Cavalli's operas has increased as performances and recordings of his La Calisto, Ercole amante, L'Ormindo, and Statira, principessa di Persia have engaged listeners' imaginations during the past three decades, but it was not until the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA that the composer's 1652 political allegory Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona reclaimed its rightful place in the annals of operatic progress. Brought to the stage of Charleston's Dock Street Theatre, where the production benefited from a venue that in many ways replicates the spatial ambiance for which the opera was created, by an uncommonly well-matched team dedicated to the endeavor's success, Veremonda besieged Spoleto with extraordinary charm and vitality. The notion of resurrecting a forgotten opera often suggests the exhumation of a corpse and an attempt at resuscitating a thing so long dead that it seems never to have been alive. Veremonda sprang to life as though she had only been sleeping—sleeping, it might be said, with her eyes open, one focused on the past and the other on the future.
Whether one's involvement with music is as a participant or an observer, the earnest opera aficionado must acquire the ability to discern passion from posturing. A successful performance renders this an easy task, and Tuesday evening's [2 June] Veremonda was clearly the culmination of a long journey through libraries and archives, unanswerable questions, and hours upon hours of advocacy, preparation, refinement, and rehearsal. Assuming the rôle of a musical Sherlock Holmes, Australian-born conductor and musicologist Aaron Carpenè managed to reassemble the pieces of the Veremonda puzzle with startling immediacy. Composed in 1652 to a libretto by Giulio Strozzi that was adapted from earlier texts, Andrea Cicognini’s Il Celio and Don Gastone Moncada, Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona was almost certainly first performed in the Nuovo Teatro del Palazzo Reale on 21 December 1652—almost certainly, that is, because some sources cite Venice, where Veremonda was heard in 1653, as the city of the opera’s début. An opportunistic artistic response to the Spanish quashing of Catalan uprisings in the mid-Seventeenth Century, Veremonda depicts the conquering of Gibraltar, the last stronghold of Moorish Granada, and the ousting of the Moors from Spain by Fernando II of Aragón and Isabel I of Castilla y León. In the fashion typical of Seventeenth-Century Neapolitan opera, Cavalli’s and Strozzi’s concoction blends elements of the quintessentially Italian commedia dell’arte with somber themes of regal authority, infidelity, betrayal, gender identities, and religious intolerance. As reconstituted by Carpenè, the score of Veremonda is a fertile environment in which the antics of comedic characters reminiscent of those in L’Ormindo are contrasted with the dire plights of lovers like those in La Calisto and Artemisia. Musically, the score contains love scenes as evocative as those for Diana and Endimione in La Calisto, and the effects of the superlative scholarship with which Carpenè prepared Veremonda for modern performance never outweighed his obvious joy in undertaking the task. This Veremonda is a thriving organism, not an academic treatise unleashed from its ivory tower without benefit of acclimation into the often discombobulating domain of greasepaint and theatrical hazards.
With Seussian sets and costumes in primary colors by world-renowned Italian artist Ugo Nespolo, Spoleto’s production of Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona ushered the opera into the Twenty-First Century with intelligence and ingenuity. Nespolo’s designs, Stefano Vizioli’s insightful direction, and Pierluigi Vanelli’s savvy choreography engendered a galvanizing atmosphere in which the opera’s drama played out with alternating gaiety and gravity, adroitly illuminated by John Torres's lighting designs. Veremonda’s band of amazon warriors received from dancers Kristen Burgsteiner, Ashley Concannon, Darli Iakovleva, Katharine Irwin, Bailey McFaden, and Starla Wood nimble performances, and their dexterity was matched move for cramp-inducing move by male dancers Tim Brown, Anton Iakovleva, Maurice Johnson, Jon-Michael Perry, Blake Pritchard, and David Vick. The exhilarating, Moorish-style Dance of the Bulls was a highlight of the evening, as was the enchanting dance for the whole cast that closed the opera. Working closely with Carpenè, Vizioli brought Veremonda to life with shrewd fusions of period-appropriate dramatic devices and modern sensibilities. The primary focus of the production was not on an ostentatious revelation of Veremonda as a reclaimed masterpiece but on allowing both the musical personnel to perform the score with artistic freedom and the audience to approach the opera without prejudices or preconceptions.
Amazzoni in missione: (from left to right) Countertenor Andrey Nemzer as Alfonso, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Veremonda, tenor Steven Cole as Don Buscone, bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Roldano, and dancers as amazon warriors in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]Like the verses of Chaucer and Dante, Cavalli's musical language in Veremonda is often strikingly modern. The composer's harmonic progressions exhibit an innovative chromaticism that is consistently but diversely used for concentrated expressivity. This was made apparent in every bar by the playing of members of New York Baroque Incorporated. Recovering quickly from fleeting uncertainty of ensemble in the opening Sinfonia, the musicians responded to Carpenè's inspired leadership with their own inspiring performances, each instrument entrusted to an acknowledged virtuoso. Violinists Lorenzo Colitto and Adriane Post, gambist Wen Yang, cellist Ezra Seltzer, and bassist Curtis Daily executed Cavalli's tricky music with flawless intonation—an especially admirable feat with period instruments in Charleston's trademark humidity. Priscilla Herreid played the recorder with elegance that made the instrument a pleasure to hear, and fellow recorder player Michael Collver both equaled her achievement and doubled on cornetto with consummate mastery. No less masterful was the work of Daniel Swenberg and Grant Herreid, whose authoritative strumming of theorbo, lute, and Baroque guitar gave the performance its pulse. Moreover, Herreid's percussion rattled and clanged festively or threateningly as the dramatic goings-on dictated. Seconding the conductor's clear-sighted management of the continuo, Elliott Figg's playing of harpsichord and positive organ was magnificent. The planning of a production of an opera of Veremonda's vintage requires careful organization of instrumental forces according to surviving source materials, and this production benefited tremendously from Carpenè's perspicacious convocation of this team of world-class musicians.
Giacutte, the captain of Zelemina’s guards, entered in Parte Seconda like a storm blowing into Charleston Harbor. Enacted by bass-baritone Jason Budd with rotund, hirsute menace that quickly evolved into good-natured bumbling in the fashion of Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the character was strangely endearing, a sort of kindly uncle with a scimitar. Budd’s imposing voice boomed like thunder in his singing of 'Donna, che malaccorta non può tener celato,’ but Giacutte’s tempestuousness was short-lived: the only disappointment was that the rôle, too, is short-lived.
With the part sung with such sincerity by bass-baritone Joseph Barron, it was impossible not to sympathize with Roldano’s predicament. Thinking that his son has betrayed both father and king and having been exiled from court, Roldano’s quest to right the wrongs to himself and his royal patron lead to mistaken conclusions and near-fatal errors in judgment. Whether inciting Alfonso to war or railing against Delio’s duplicity, Barron sang boldly, little troubled by the frequent descents to and beyond the bottom of the stave. His 'Signor, non ti doler de' lunghi indugi' was the argument of a battle-wizened soldier, but it was his singing of 'Dove Delio soggiorna, vanne, vanne Roldan, vola e trapassa, offeso parti e vendicato torna'—the outcry of a frustrated father—that was most impactful. The granitic solidity of Barron’s voice lent Roldano authority and made his every utterance assertive.
Una regina e la sua nutrice: Countertenor Michael Maniaci as Zaida (left) and soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli as Zelemina (right) in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]
The tessitura of Cavalli's music for Zelemina's nurse Zaida did not often allow American countertenor Michael Maniaci to deploy the lustrous upper octave of his natural soprano voice, but the musicality and dramatic uninhibitedness of his performance were fantastic. Travesti rôles like Zaida were common in Seventeenth-Century opera, but they can only rarely have been sung as well as Maniaci sang Zaida in Charleston. The gag of hooking a violin whilst angling in the orchestra pit was managed with panache, and the singer was as light on his feet in dance numbers as Fred Astaire—or, in this context, Ginger Rogers. It was Maniaci’s opalescent voice that was most notable, however. Every note of Zaida’s music was sung with poise, and his phrasing of 'Il rifutar gli amanti non è ragion di stato' was shaped by the command of bel canto for which the singer is acclaimed. Responding to the non-piscine product of Zaida’s fishing expedition, Maniaci sang ‘Oh, oh, mal abbia, mal abbia il pescare’ with droll exasperation. He is the kind of singer who can make an indelible impression with a single line, and his Zaida was a memorable intersection of vocal sangfroid and dramatic cunning.
The rôle of the Sergente maggiore, the regimental leader of Veremonda’s amazon legion, is the source of one of Veremonda’s most bizarre mysteries. In manuscript sources, the character is inexplicably transformed from a bass into a soprano in the course of the opera. Determining whether to transpose half of the part for a bass or soprano was only one of the choices that had to be made in the planning of this production, and the opportunity to hear the shimmering voice of Danielle Talamantes prompted gratitude for Carpenè’s decision to allocate the rôle to a soprano. Like Zaida, il Sergente maggiore does not offer the singer a plethora of possibilities for histrionic display, but Talamantes shone in 'Sorella non sai, ch'è cosa diversa dall'empier un fuso sparar l'archibuso?' Resembling a svelte young Marilyn Horne as Händel’s Rinaldo, she mirrored Maniaci’s talent for enriching every moment of her part with vocal gold.
Commedia in un cappello brillante: Tenor Steven Cole as Don Buscone in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]
Portraying the jester Don Buscone with riotous physicality that encompassed cartwheels and bounding about the stage with the spryness of an Olympic hurdler, tenor Steven Cole provided levity whenever dramatic situations seemed destined for irreversible calamity. In the first part of the opera, he sang 'Ala, ala, o Guerrieri, fate largo, o Soldati' with the counterfeit pomposity of a man for whom war is a tremendous inconvenience. Cole’s phrasing of 'Il giorno a caccia di selvaggie belve il nostro re sen va' revealed that the depths of his artistry extend far beyond comedy. The self-important glee with which he delivered 'Da caccia il re tornò di cornuti animali' to the audience in the second part, relaying the report of Veremonda’s dalliance with Delio, was boisterous, but the foremost joy of his performance was the quality of his singing. His bright timbre allied with technical acumen that failed him in none of the difficulties of his music, the sheer mirth with which Cole enacted Don Buscone’s shenanigans was infectious.
As il Crepuscolo in the opera’s Prologo, tenor Brian Downen sang ‘Voi, lieti in feste e in gioco’ sensationally, the bravura writing negotiated with aplomb, and he joined il Sole in an incandescent account of ‘Belle donne però sovvenga a voi.’ Still, it was as Zeriffo that Downen unleashed the best of his artistry as a singing actor. In Parte Prima, he voiced 'Nascer libero che vale se dura povertà' with crackling energy, and his Zeriffo interacted with his beloved Vespina with teasing insouciance. The teary-eyed irony of his 'La trista mia sorte mi avezza servendo a star con la morte' was keenly portrayed. Downen brought both more and more appealing tone to Zeriffo’s music than many singers invest in similar rôles, epitomized by his broadly-sung 'Della nave del core, quand'è nocchiero amore.’ With a cheeky smile always at the ready, Downen’s Zeriffo braved every indignity unflinchingly and emerged as one of the opera’s most lovable characters.
Una barca per il destino: Tenor Brian Downen as Zeriffo (left) and countertenor Raffaele Pè as Delio (right) in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]
Vespina erupted onto the Dock Street Theatre stage in the person of French mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, whose singing combined the combustive thrust of Vesuvio with the cosmopolitan sophistication of rue St-Honoré. As a comedienne, she mugged with the jocularity of Lucille Ball, but it was the potency of her singing that made her performance unforgettable. In the opera’s first part, she voiced 'Quest'è bella ch'ognun voglia l'impossibile da me!' with unstoppable charisma, and she made the farcical 'Troppo gridan tutti quanti "con gli zoccoli il puoi far”’ truly funny. Even the effervescent Vespina has a streak of seriousness, and Ricci sang 'Bella fede, ove sei gita?' with probity that transcended comedy, expanding the scope of the rôle from one solely of absurdity to a detailed, involved characterization. The devotion of Ricci’s Vespina to both Zeriffo and Veremonda was unexpectedly touching, and there was a suggestion of tenderness in her voicing of 'Delio sen va la notte, amor gli è duce.’ Throughout the performance, she commandeered attention no matter with whom she shared the stage, and Vespina grinned, danced, and, above all, sang her way into the audience’s collective heart.
First heard as il Sole in the Prologo, countertenor Andrey Nemzer unfurled steady, dark-hued tone in ‘Ubbidente anch’io d’Ercole ai segni’ and the ensemble with il Crepuscolo, ‘Belle donne però sovvenga a voi.’ Subsequently assuming Alfonso’s regal mien, he portrayed the intellectual monarch with boyish guilelessness. The bookish sincerity of his singing of 'Adora, quasi nume, ciascun di rege il nome' was complemented by a traversal of 'Riformar a voglia mia, s'io potessi la Natura' that radiated an intense fascination with the natural world. Nemzer’s timbre shone in his singing of 'Son l'arti che seguo, sì dure, sì gravi, se teco mi stringo fa sì che soavi.’ Such a passive king seemed slightly ridiculous as a warrior, but there was nothing foolish in the countertenor’s declamation of 'Delio, Delio fellone, malvagia Veremonda,’ the king’s heartbreak showing through the steely resolve. Both this and Alfonso’s subsequent reconciliation with Veremonda were in Nemzer’s hands profoundly moving. The baritonal sheen of his lower register contrasting effectively with his sunlit upper register, his Alfonso was a man whose head-in-the-clouds abstraction was indicative of strength rather than weakness of character.
La regina ed il suo guerriero: Countertenor Raffaele Pè as Delio (left) and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Veremonda (right) in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]
As portrayed by Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè, Delio was the quintessential pretty boy whose vanity was tempered by a noble spirit that prevented his actions from decaying into utter baseness. The voice is an instrument of incredible beauty over which its owner has finely-honed control, and the singer found in Delio’s music fuel that he ignited with his incendiary performance. In the opera’s Parte Prima, Pè’s singing of 'Sia teco in eterno, dovunque tu sia, quest'anima mia' with Zelemina throbbed with youthful passion, his voice combining with Lombardi Mazzulli’s with the naturalness and inevitability of a river flowing into the sea. Pè did not overplay the humor of 'Gran tormento è l'esser bello,' in which it seems that Delio must be a less-treacherous ancestor of Verdi’s Principessa Eboli, but his perfectly-timed delivery was greeted by well-deserved laughter from the audience. His stirring 'Come spira bravura e leggiadria quella Amazzone mia!' and 'Bella bocca, perché tante dolci voglie a me chiudesti' were executed with the ardor of an ambitious Shakespearean lover. Joining first with Veremonda in 'Alma ad alma insieme stretta fortunata goderà in amor gioia perfetta,' with Zelemina in 'Qui le grazie e gl'amori oggi si trovano,' and then with Veremonda again in 'Aura che sibila, fonte che mormora,’ Pè judiciously adapted his phrasing and vibrato to complement those of his leading ladies. The dramatic sagacity of his portrayal of Delio was exemplified by his articulation of a single line, 'Padre, chi qua ti vuole!' The exclamation of a thwarted lover whose amorous adventures are disrupted by the untimely arrival of his father, the line drew from Pè a delivery worthy of Groucho Marx. Credible as a comedian and a lover, this young artist sang Delio’s music with unshakable mettle and a voice redolent of silver and starlight.
The Zelemina of Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli was a delicate creation whose gossamer femininity disguised an iron will that blossomed when the character came under fire. In the opera’s first part, the singer’s velvety voice and bewitchingly beautiful face shone with love for Delio, with whom she sang a ravishing account of 'Sia teco in eterno, dovunque tu sia, quest'anima mia.’ In the scene at the start of Parte Seconda that found her in the bath, she caressed 'Riedi, riedi agl'occhi miei' with the tranquility of a spring breeze. Lombardi Mazzulli and Pè sang 'Né meste più, né più dolenti siano le voci mie' with intensity that would have been equally at home in Act Three of La bohème. The towering climax of the evening was the vanquished Zelemina’s plea for her life, 'Invitta Veremonda, re fortunato Ibèro, a' vostri piedi io sono, perdono io non dispero.' Accompanied only by plaintive strings, the soprano’s voice soared through the theatre, melting the hearts of Alfonso and Veremonda and enrapturing the ears of the audience. The sweetness of Lombardi Mazzulli’s tone was bolstered by a solid technical core, and not one note, ornament, word, or emotion of the part was beyond her abilities.
Singing the titular amazon of Aragón, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux looked phenomenal in Nespolo's costumes and sounded even better in Cavalli’s music. From her first entrance, she portrayed a character desperate to be the foremost star in her husband's firmament. The sadness that she evinced as Veremonda struggled to divert Alfonso's attention from his celestial musings was deeply poignant, depicted by the singer with disarming simplicity. She was no less convincing as the sword-toting commander of her amazon corps. In the opera’s first part, the indignation that exploded from her 'Delle Amazzoni force il numero è prescritto?' incited her fiery articulation of 'Son l'armi che cingo sì dure, sì gravi se teco mi stringo fa sì che soavi' and 'Oh tradimento atroce!' The current of despair that surged beneath the surface of Genaux’s singing of 'Vada pur dotto marito a contar vada le stelle' swept through every crack in the queen’s intrepid demeanor like a geyser. Even when manipulating Delio’s passion with her own ambivalent designs, this Veremonda’s love for Alfonso was omnipresent. Genaux made of 'Finga, finga d'amare, se vuol donna regnare' an artistic as well as a political credo: the woman born into power must prove her suitability for it, and the singer entrusted with the title rôle in an unknown opera must prove deserving of it. If there was any doubt of Genaux’s suitability for the part, it was erased by her intoxicating account of 'Ti adorava questo core,’ in which her ornamentation exploited the unassailable security of the voice and integration of her upper and lower registers. She and Pè traded vocal blows and embraces in their ideally-blended performances of 'Alma ad alma insieme stretta fortunata goderà in amor gioia perfetta' and 'Aura che sibila, fonte che mormora.’ The smile that brightened Genaux’s Veremonda’s face when she realized that Alfonso had come to her rescue, even with the intention of denouncing her for infidelity, scintillated like a comet viewed through her husband’s telescope. In 2014, Genaux marked the twentieth anniversary of her professional operatic début, but the voice sounded fresher and more effortlessly-produced than those of many ‘green’ singers now emerging from conservatories. Among her gallery of celebrated impersonations of Händel and Rossini characters, her portrait of Cavalli’s Veremonda acquired a merited place of prominence. On the page, Veremonda is an ambiguous, equivocal lady: in Genaux’s performance, she was truly a captivating, multi-faceted heroine whose motives were guided by a primal need to be appreciated.
The accusation frequently made is that an opera like Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona does not proffer opportunities for the vocal and dramatic gestures necessary to make lasting impressions on average listeners—if, in the fantastical menagerie of opera, such creatures actually exist—primarily familiar with the recitative/aria/cabaletta formulae of Nineteenth-Century opera. Perhaps that is true if a production of an opera like Veremonda has to its discredit a cast of dullards who neither appreciate nor understand the score. Reviving an opera dormant for more than three centuries is a bit like restoring an antique automobile: it is necessary to completely comprehend the original design, preserve every part still in working order, and fabricate replacement parts to unobtrusively fill gaps for which authentic elements can no longer be procured. This Aaron Carpenè accomplished with the devotion of a Picasso rejuvenating a canvas by da Vinci or Botticelli. If there was a lady or gentleman involved with Spoleto Festival USA's production of Veremonda who did not have genuine affection for the score and the opportunity to stage it, the apathy was disguised with rare success. The acting in this production was not employed in deceiving the audience, however. The actions of every person upon the stage, in the pit, in the theatre, and in Spoleto Festival USA's headquarters were pledged to reinstating the prestige that Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona enjoyed three centuries ago. Musically and dramatically, the performance prompted the response that any warring monarchs and their subjects long to hear: mission accomplished.
Vespina e la regina: Mezzo-sopranos Céline Ricci as Vespina (left) and Vivica Genaux as Veremonda (right) as Veremonda in Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona at Spoleto Festival USA, 2 June 2015 [Photo © by Julia Lynn Photography]