02 December 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Domenico Freschi — ERMELINDA (N. Printz, S. Couden, K. Scharich, J. Montigne, D. Rosengaus; Ars Minerva, 22 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda (left) and soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]DOMENICO FRESCHI (1634 – 1710): ErmelindaNikola Printz (Ermelinda), Sara Couden (Ormondo), Kindra Scharich (Rosaura), Justin Montigne (Aristeo), Deborah Rosengaus (Armidoro); Cynthia Black (violin I), Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo (violin II), Aaron Westman (viola), Gretchen Claassen (cello), Adam Cockerham (theorbo); Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conducor [Céline Ricci, Stage Director; Entropy, Projections Designer; Matthew Nash, Costume Designer; Thomas Bowersox, Lighting Designer; Teaghan Rohan, Makeup; Nicole Spencer Carreira, Graphic Designer; Ars Minerva, ODC Theater, San Francisco, California, USA; Friday, 22 November 2019]

When a conclave of music-loving intellectuals and Classical scholars first devised the premise of opera as Twenty-First-Century audiences know it, their principal objective was to recreate the fusion of drama, music, and dance that was the foundation of Ancient Greek theater. Discarding ego with the aim of focusing on communicating emotions via stylized speech and movement that transcended the polyphonic complexities of Renaissance music, opera’s earliest composers were charged with allying emotions with melodic and harmonic interplay that illuminated their hidden facets. Rooted in the fertile traditions of Antiquity, it is not surprising that opera found source material in mythology. Rejuvenated in pioneering scores by opera’s early masters, figures like Daphne, Diana, and Orpheus leapt from the pages of Ovid and his contemporaries onto the stages of Italy, not least in Venice, where public theaters enabled composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Pier Francesco Cavalli to extend opera’s reach from aristocratic salons to La Serenissima’s canals, streets, and piazze—and, by the middle of the Seventeenth Century, throughout much of Europe.

In its native land, opera was rapidly established as an integral component of indigenous culture, its melodies embodying the Italian spirit in times of celebration and crisis. For Venetians, opera became by the time of Monteverdi’s death in 1643 a vital element of their city’s Carnevale, the boisterous period of indulging hedonistic impulses that preceded the austerity of Lent. The flamboyant masks of Carnevale, affirmed by history to have been as intriguing in the Seventeenth Century as they remain in 2019, disclose a communal theatricality that complements opera’s dramatic aesthetics. Dedicated to rediscovering neglected scores composed as entertainments for the Carnevale season, San Francisco-based Ars Minerva transports the marvels and mysteries of La Dominante to California’s Bay Area. Furthering the success of previous productions of Daniele da Castolari’s La Cleopatra, Carlo Pallavicino’s Le amazzoni nell’isole fortunate, Pietro Andrea Ziani’s La Circe, and Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide with the first known staging since the Seventeenth Century of Giovanni Domenico Freschi’s drama per musica Ermelinda, Ars Minerva recreated in San Francisco’s Mission District a fascinating, unjustly-forgotten chapter in opera’s and Venice’s vibrant histories.

Born in Vicenza in the Veneto on 26 March 1634, Freschi emerges from the pages of Ermelinda as a conservative but innovative artist. As in Brahms’s works, careful but creative adaptation of the styles and structures inherited from his forebears yields music that cleverly and compellingly transcends its conventionality. Premièred in 1680 in the Teatro delle Vergini in the Piazzola sul Brenta compound of the Contarini family, where Freschi’s opera Berenice vendicativa also received its first staging, Ermelinda inhabits the musical and dramatic realm populated by Cavalli’s La Calisto and Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona and Antonio Cesti’s Orontea and Il pomo d’oro, operas that predate Ermelinda by a quarter-century. [Some sources suggest that Ermelinda was first performed in 1682, but existing evidence makes a more convincing case for 1680.]

The composer having achieved biological and vocational longevity that was unusual for the time in which he lived, it is reasonable to hypothesize that much of Freschi’s music has been lost, undermining musicological assessment of the trajectory of his artistic development, but, its relative adherence to long-established traditions notwithstanding, passages in the score of Ermelinda prefigure later works, especially the operas of Agostino Steffani. There are also moments in Ermelinda that look forward to works from opposite ends of Georg Friedrich Händel’s career, the early Agrippina and the late Serse. Staged in the intimate space of ODC Theater, Ars Minerva’s Ermelinda irrefutably justified the company’s decision to resurrect the piece. Tastes change rapidly and inexplicably, but how can music of this quality have been forgotten?

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura, and contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La follia dell’amore: (from left to right) countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura, and contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Logically, singers should be the most effective directors of opera productions. It is said, probably rightly, that doctors are the worst patients, however, and the applicability of this adage to singers directing opera has been demonstrated by the unsuccessful efforts of acclaimed singers. An uncommon singer whose extraordinary voice is partnered by artistry of equal caliber, Ars Minerva’s founder and Artistic Director Céline Ricci presented Ermelinda not as a ridiculous romp in antiquated sexual politics but as a grippingly modern examination of gender identities, individual ethics, and conflicts between duty and desire. In insensitive productions, operas of Ermelinda’s vintage can seem interminable, but Ricci’s concept, aided by the decision to present Freschi’s three acts in two parts with an interval following the fourth scene of the composer’s Act Two, limned the work’s convoluted narrative with cinematic efficiency and clarity. Meticulously maintaining an equilibrium between comedy and seriousness in all aspects of the production generated a performance in which humor heightened the emotional significance of the opera’s humanistic ethos. Building to a wrenchingly moving dénouement, Ricci’s pacing of the drama exhibited pervasive intelligence, her passion for giving new life to Freschi’s music apparent in every gesture, movement, and expression.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Ricci’s leadership was the consistency of the dedication and ingenuity exhibited by the artists engaged to bring her vision to fruition. Matthew Nash’s costume designs are rightly revered in and beyond San Francisco, and his work for Ars Minerva’s production of Ermelinda was whimsical, intricate, and splendidly provocative. The swirling patterns of male characters’ waistcoats paid homage to the brilliant brocades of authentic Venetian dress of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the stylized hoops within which Ermelinda was bound artfully evoked both servitude and forced femininity. The rosettes with which Rosaura’s gown was festooned were astoundingly beautiful and appropriately indicative of the lady’s flirtatious, frivolous constitution. Inventively dressed by Nash and refined by Teaghan Rohan’s makeup mastery, the characters’ physical appearances embodied their functions within the drama.

Similarly, Entropy’s projection designs reflected the opera’s constantly-changing moods. Often gorgeous but never distracting, the projections forged alluring tableaux that lent spatial specificity to Ermelinda’s fanciful geographical setting. Tastefully illuminated by Thomas Bowersox’s lighting, the scenic incarnation of the agricultural prison to which the defiant Ermelinda was exiled was reminiscent of California’s verdant central valley, and the facility of transitions among times of day augmented the pliant continuity of Ricci’s direction. An indispensable participant in the production whose witty antics emerged from her surroundings, Elisabeth Flaherty added a delightful human dimension to the staging, the ebullience with which she alternated alliances—and genders—in the performance of her duties providing welcome levity in moments of calamity. Born of unmistakable regard for music and text, Ars Minerva’s production unearthed in Ermelinda a pertinent modernity that the centuries-old score wore with the ideal fit of one of Nash’s costumes.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH ROSENGAUS as Armidoro in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © Ars Minerva]L’amante usurpante: mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus as Armidoro in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The virtuosity displayed by the musicians assembled by Ars Minerva was no less awe-inspiring for being expected in a performance of this sort of music. Individually and in ensemble, violinists Cynthia Black and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and violist Aaron Westman played with intonational accuracy and rhythmic effervescence. Cellist Gretchen Claassen and theorbist Adam Cockerham propelled the continuo indefatigably, modulations from major to minor and transitions among scenes managed with dramatic cohesion. Like Ricci’s direction, the musical guidance of conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour divulged obvious cognizance of and respect for singers and singing, as well as an innate affinity for Freschi’s style. Ritornelli did not merely preface individual numbers or accompany characters’ entrances and exits: under Vinikour’s supervision, these interludes intensified the emotions of the scenes they punctuated.

There are few places in the United States in which the joke of inserting a few bars of Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo into the scene in which music is proposed as an effective treatment for amorous maladies could be expected to be appreciated, but the hilarity of this anachronism was not wasted on Ars Minerva’s audience. [So eloquent was the musicians’ playing of these fragments that Freschi would surely have forgiven Rosaura for succumbing to the temptation to sing the arias.] Vinikour collaborated with his orchestral colleagues with the camaraderie of a chamber musician, but his stewardship of the drama was the handiwork of a talented conductor not merely of specialized repertoire but of any music that he chooses to study. That this performance of Ermelinda was fastidiously prepared was palpable, but the energy and exuberance of the music making engendered an atmosphere of edge-of-the-seat spontaneity.

Hearing many recent performances of a variety of repertoire, the novice listener might understandably deduce that operatic duplicity is mandated to be depicted with unpleasant sounds. Endeavoring to seize power and love to which he is entitled by neither birth nor conquest, Armidoro in Ermelinda is indubitably a man of moral and ethical ambiguity, but mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus’s performance substantiated that the most effective operatic antagonists are those who sing appealingly. Dispatching Gs at the top of the stave with inviolable poise, she sang ‘Amo e peno e pur sò che fortuna non ho’ confidently, effortlessly projecting her tones into the theater. The bravado with which she voiced ‘Ride il fior, e ride il prato’ was captivating, her excellent diction emphasizing the skill with which Freschi employed musical effects to spotlight textual nuances.

Rosengaus navigated the dramatic course traversed by Armidoro’s ‘Hor ch’il mal fatt’e palese al rimedio,’ ‘Oggi di sol giova fingere,’ and ‘S’havessi creduto Amor si crudel’ with theatrical savvy, her depictions of the character’s disillusionment, anger, and wounded pride animated by incisive vocalism. Rosengaus suffused her singing of ‘Belle e brutte, son così le donne tutte’ and ‘Voi piangete, e fatte piangere’ with bitterness rooted in the  scorned man’s vulnerability. Whether plotting with Aristeo, sparring with Ormondo, or lamenting his unrequited love for Ermelinda, Rosengaus’s Armidoro sang beguilingly.

IN REVIEW: countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Gli schemi in azione: countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The rôle of Ermelinda’s closed-minded, self-serving father Aristeo was sung with uninhibited immersion in the character’s conniving, commendable technical acumen, and an uproarious nervous tic by countertenor Justin Montigne. In his account of ‘L’huom dotato al mondo fù di ragion e libertà,’ he set a high standard with his capable voicing of dizzying fiorature—a standard that he reliably met in subsequent scenes. The countertenor’s tone occasionally lacked ideal support at the lower extremity of the range, as in ‘D’una febre ch’e amorosa Arder sà la gioventù,’ but he largely avoided pushing the voice. The ironic sentiments of ‘Povera humanità,’ ‘Non sperar ch’io t’ami più,’ and ‘Vanno al pari honor, e vita’ received from him wonderfully uninhibited readings. At one point gleefully donning gloves of the type that a veterinarian might wear whilst delivering a breeched calf, Montigne exulted in the zany quirks of his rôle without compromising musical integrity. Aristeo is an unapologetic hypocrite and a reprehensible father, but Montigne’s strongly-sung performance exerted an eerie charisma.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La bellezza della vendetta: mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Capriciousness of the operatic variety can be diverting but is seldom as endearing as it was in mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich’s portrayal of Ermelinda’s inconstant companion and confidante Rosaura. An inveterate manipulator, this Rosaura enjoyed no pastime more than amorous intrigue. From the first notes of ‘Maledico Amor e sorte,’ Scharich fashioned a characterization of irresistible charm, deploying Rosaura’s femininity as a dazzling, disorienting weapon. Nonetheless, a tender heart could be discerned in her singing of ‘Non giova piangere,’ and her performances of ‘Altro non è l’Amor, ch’un pazzia’ and ‘Benedico Amore e sorte’ bewitchingly conveyed the amazement of a young woman who was as confused by her own feelings as by others’ actions.

Absolute domination of a lavender wig is not a guarantee of success as an opera singer, but Scharich’s integration of her wig as an extension of Rosaura’s persona was an art unto itself. Still, it was her vocalism that garnered admiration, particularly in the demanding ‘Non sperar t’ami più.’ Declaiming ‘Frà il timor e la speme confusa ancor rimango’ with emotional candor, she sang ‘Il timore col cieco Amore fan ch’io speri e sì e nò’ mesmerizingly, her sensual timbre flickering with indecision. Scharich found surprising expressive depths in ‘Mi dice il mio core che giova sperar’ and ‘Non mi perdo di speranza,’ voicing these numbers glamourously. Declaring war on the wiles of men with adroitly-executed flamenco steps, Scharich’s Rosaura bandaged her battle wounds with fresh stratagems. For this Rosaura, the thrill was perhaps in the chase rather than in the catch, but Scharich’s singing ensnared the audience’s affection.

IN REVIEW: contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Il vero principe: contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Rarer amongst today’s singers than a capable Brünnhilde and a fully-qualified Siegfried is a true contralto. Rarer still are productions in which contraltos are not compelled to portray mothers, witches, harlots, or crones. Ars Minerva had in Sara Couden a genuine contralto with a voice of superb quality, and she had in the rôle of the Phoenician prince Ormondo, disguised as the simple but sincere Clorindo in order to be near to his beloved Ermelinda, a part in which her artistry shone. Hurling herself into the drama, Couden voiced ‘Bella madre di pensieri’ and ‘Con grazie si cortesi’ powerfully, the resonance of her lower register evincing Ormondo’s nobility. Musically and emotionally, the contralto’s singing of ‘Pupillette s’io vi miro, mi sforzate ad adorar’ was arresting, her performance achieving a depth of feeling that transformed the opera’s plot from harmless farce to romance on the brink of tragedy. The comedic implications of the contrast with her singing of ‘T’adoro sì, ma nò, pensier cangiando io vò’ therefore could not have been more significant: in an environment in which honesty was folly, feigned madness was a convenient refuge for this cunning prince.

Couden’s technical prowess furnished a myriad of memorable passages, one of the most exhilarating of which was ‘Non bastava, o Ciel, così tormi al cor la libertà,’ but a potent feature of her interpretation of Ormondo’s music was her uncanny ability to reveal the psychological motivations of coloratura. With her shrewd acting, she differentiated the temperamental contours of ‘Fà quanto sai, Fortuna, nò, non lascierò d’amar’ and ‘Bella, la libertà che doni a questo piè,’ but it was again her voice that stunned in ‘Stelle, contro di me tanto rigor perche si fieri,’ her sumptuous tone enveloping the music in a cloak of vocal velvet. The sincerity of Couden’s statement of ‘Per tè vivo, e a me son morto’ was heartbreaking, and her poignant enunciation of ‘Che mai si può far’ was profoundly touching, Ormondo’s despair expressed with riveting simplicity. Significantly, it is not by Ermelinda but by Ormondo that the opera’s final aria is sung, and Couden voiced ‘Gioje care, volatemi in petto’ mirthfully, rejoicing in the triumph of the prince’s fidelity. Couden’s was an unforgettable performance in which the singer’s formidable gifts were wholly devoted to serving the composer.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La figlia ribelle: mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The title rôle in Ermelinda is an ancestor of Händel’s Rodelinda, Beethoven’s Leonore, and Puccini’s Minnie, a woman unafraid of living, loving, and dying on her own terms. In mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz’s portrayal for Ars Minerva, Freschi’s heroine endured misfortune and abuse but was no wilting victim. Voicing ‘Mi vuoi viva’ ‘Le dirò che non ha core chi resiste a tua beltà’ commandingly, Printz validated Ermelinda’s place at the center of the drama, the other characters’ paths intersecting in their interactions with her. The polished-mahogany timbre of Printz’s voice gleamed in their singing of ‘L’Amar corrisposto, e un caro morire,’ and the expressivity with which they phrased ‘Nò, stelle rubelle, sperar più non vò’ and ‘Deh, stringetevi al mio piè, cari lacci’ accentuated the subtleties of Freschi’s word settings.

The anguish that emanated from Printz’s accounts of ‘Dolce Amor, pur ti stringo a questo sen’ and ‘Colli aperti, erme foreste vengo a voi per lagrimar’ bared Ermelinda’s dauntless but sensitive soul to the audience, securing empathy for the maltreated woman’s plight. The mezzo-soprano uttered ‘Ch’io adori quell volto possibil non è, nò’ with grim resolve, and, imparting Ermelinda’s anticipation of a blissful reunion with Ormondo in death, they sang ‘Nelle Elisio ove t’aggiri teco accogli i miei sospiri’ ethereally, the voice echoing the meaning of the words. Their ardent, assured vocalism coupled with unpretentious acting, Printz portrayed Ermelinda as a woman governed by no will but her own.

At the time of its first performance in 1680, Ermelinda was already archaic, and it is unlikely that, then or in the subsequent three decades before his death in 1710, Freschi imagined that his opera would return to the stage after an absence of 339 years. Virtually every piece that has been reawakened in recent years has advocates who extravagantly extol its virtues, but Ars Minerva’s production proved that Ermelinda’s long slumber was unwarranted. With this spectacular, stylish staging, Ars Minerva righted one of operatic history’s egregious wrongs.