16 October 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Riccardo Broschi — IDASPE (J. Holiday, V. Genaux, P. Beaudin, Z. Reams, S. Delijani, K. Sulayman, W.E. Chan; Quantum Theatre, 13 October 2022)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano PASCALE BEAUDIN as Berenice, tenor KARIM SULAYMAN as Artaserse, and mezzo-soprano ZOIE REAMS as Mandane, and dancers in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]RICCARDO BROSCHI (circa 1698 – 1756): Idaspe [MODERN WORLD PREMIÈRE]– John Holiday (Idaspe), Vivica Genaux (Dario), Pascale Beaudin (Berenice), Zoie Reams (Mandane), Shannon Delijani (Arbace), Karim Sulayman (Artaserse), Wei En Chan (Ircano); Chatham Baroque; Daniel Nesta Curtis, conductor [Claire van Kampen, director; Antonia Franceschi, choreographer; Narelle Sissons, scenic designer; Mary Ellen Stebbins, lighting designer; Ilona Somogyi, costume designer; Quantum Theatre, Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Thursday, 13 October 2022]

Few fates are more dreaded by ambitious artists in the Twenty-First Century than being first ignored and then forgotten. What could be more cruel than sacrificing so much of one’s life to the creation of art that battles to be heard and seen in the present and slumbers in neglect in future? Despite now being an indelible element of the artistic personality, the notion of a body of musical work enduring beyond the lifetime of its creator is relatively new, a product of the Nineteenth Century, during which composers like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner cultivated continuing interest in their work by molding and promulgating their own mystique. Had he foreseen the company’s founding, might Luigi Cherubini have anticipated his Medea opening a Metropolitan Opera season in 2022? Could Händel have dreamed of his operas, tailored to the abilities of individual singers, being performed a quater-millennium after his death?

Riccardo Broschi would perhaps be one of the composers of his time who would be most surprised by hearing his music performed in 2022. Likely born in Naples in 1698, Broschi was the eldest son of musical parents. Surviving documentation of his musical education indicates that his talent manifested early in his life, but much of his music for the stage owes its preservation to the fame of his brother Carlo, the castrato Farinelli. Regarded by some musicologists as the first true musical celebrity, it is theorized that only Benjamin Franklin was as widely known as Farinelli in Europe during the Eighteenth Century. His surviving music demonstrates that the elder Broschi brother possessed considerable musical gifts in his own right, and he wisely capitalized on the boon of such a fortuitous familial association by composing music that flaunted his younger sibling’s extraordinary talent. During Broschi’s lifetime, writing operas for Farinelli was an act of business savvy. In the Twenty-First Century, their connection with Farinelli ensures the survival of scores that, like so many pieces, might otherwise now be lost.

Fully-staged productions of Baroque operas remain uncommon in the United States. Productions featuring period instruments are even rarer. First performed at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo during the 1730 Venetian Carnevale, Broschi’s Idaspe is a surprising candidate for revival in the USA in 2022. Despite its first cast including three of the Eighteenth Century’s most celebrated singers (the castrato Nicolini—Händel’s first Rinaldo in 1711—in the title rôle, Francesca Cuzzoni as Berenice, and Farinelli as Dario), there is little evidence of Idaspe having endured beyond its inaugural production except as a source of arie di baule inserted into other scores, notably Vivaldi’s 1735 pasticcio Bajazet. Giovanni Pietro Candi’s libretto for Idaspe contains amorous and political convolutions of the sort that are typical of Baroque opera, but Broschi’s musical setting often transcends the conventionality of the words, not least in the writing for Farinelli and Cuzzoni. Broschi was not a peer of Händel, Telemann, and Rameau as a musical dramatist, yet Idaspe’s musical ingenuity merits modern reassessment.

Transitioning the opera’s drama from Antiquity to the middle of the Twentieth Century, Claire van Kampen applied her considerable experience in both music and theater to curating an incarnation of Idaspe in which elements of the opera’s drama proved to be astonishingly timely, its archetypal characters mired in conflicts that are all too relevant for today’s audiences. Not unexpectedly, some repeats of da capo arias and the libretto’s expanses of secco recitative were pruned, adhering to time constraints and mostly circumventing potential longueurs. The title character was arguably most adversely affected by modifications to the score, losing the fine spiritoso aria ‘Così mi piace’ in Act One, the aria ‘Bianca man tu sei di neve ma riceve’ in Act Two, and the affecting accompagnato ‘Infelice prigionero’ in Act Three. Reshaping works to maximize singers’ technical and histrionic faculties or meet audience expectations was common in the Eighteenth Century, fidelity to composers’ manuscripts becoming sacrosanct much later. Van Kampen’s concept was in many ways true to Baroque opera’s ethos of adaptability, her Idaspe recognizably Broschi’s but also unmistakably her own.

Bringing van Kampen’s vision to the stage of Pittsburgh’s historic Byham Theatre with palpable energy and focus, the production team assembled by Quantum Theatre Idaspe’s increased the linear progression of the opera’s intricate narrative. Ilona Somogyi’s elegant but provocative costumes amplified the piece’s social and gender divisions, a vital aspect of the plot that was also accentuated by van Kampen’s clear-sighted direction. Both Narelle Sisson’s scenic designs, dominated by stylized geometric figures and neon outlines of palm trees that artfully evoked thd glitzy, somewhat seedy Naples of Pasquale Sitieri films, and Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting emphasized interplay of light and shadow, paralleling the story’s examination of clashes of public façades and private feelings.

Often a prominent component of Baroque opera, dance assumed a central rôle in Quantum Theatre’s Idaspe. Though Antonia Franceschi’s inventive choreography, recalling Martha Graham, Jerome Kern, and Bob Fosse, was brilliantly executed by the production’s eight dancers, the visual profile of their work was reminiscent more of the Weimar Republic than of 1960s Naples and introduced an uncomfortable undercurrent of vaudeville into a tale of Machiavellian political machinations. Nevertheless, the audience reaction betrayed no objection to the stylistic incongruity, the production unquestionably delighting Pittsburghers despite often rendering the opera’s plot unintelligible.

Musical impetus for Quantum Theatre’s staging of Idaspe originated with Chatham Baroque, the period-instrument ensemble founded by violinist Andrew Fouts, gambist Patricia Halverson, and theorbist Scott Pauley. Their ranks expanded for this production by gifted musicians adept at integrating historically-informed performance practices with timeless musical integrity, Chatham Baroque allied with conductor Daniel Nesta Curtis to provide a musical foundation with few weaknesses. Pauley and harpsichordist Justin Wallace maintained rhythmic fluidity in the continuo, fomenting momentum in recitatives and following Curtis’s lead in shaping ritornelli poetically. Fleeting errant pitches from the winds detracted little from enjoyment of their work.

Curtis’s tempi brought welcome variety, avoiding tedium in a setting in which markings of Allegro proliferate the composer’s manuscript. Broschi’s music is not distinguished by the kind of psychological depth found in the operas of Händel and Hasse, but Idaspe displays musical characterization of a high order, bolstered by instrumental writing that discloses its composer’s careful study of his most accomplished contemporaries’ operas. Chatham Baroque’s playing silenced questions about the quality of Idaspe’s music by enabling the listener to perceive the care with which Broschi crafted the score.

Typifying the laudable consistency of Quantum Theatre’s casting of this production, countertenor Wei En Chan sang the part of Idaspe’s staunchly loyal lieutenant Ircano with vocal panache and youthful exuberance. Reliably vivid in recitatives, he voiced his aria in Act One, ‘Nel periglio dell’amico,’ engagingly, articulating fiorature cleanly and covering the full range of the music with minimal forcing at the extremities. His singing of the Largo aria ‘Trà l’affanno, e trà il periglio’ in Act Two communicated the character’s state of mind without dramatic excess, Chan allowing the music to speak directly to the listener. Making much of each of Ircano’s moments on stage, Chan lent the character distinctive musical and dramatic identities.

As the captain of the guard Arbace, depicted in this production as a sort of androgynous mafia enforcer with as much in common with the Aufseherin in Strauss’s Elektra as with similar characters in Baroque operas, mezzo-soprano Shannon Delijani sang strongly, the voice sounding most solid in the upper fifth of the part’s compass. Optimism resounded in her voicing of ‘Questo sia quel dì felice’ in Act One, descents below the stave managed with aplomb, but Delijani was most compelling in Arbace’s aria at the beginning of Act Two, ‘Sù gl’affetti del vassallo,’ the fiorature intuitively integrated into the line. Arbace’s conflict between the duty of his position and his innate sense of justice was evident in every note, word, and gesture of Delijani’s performance, the sincerity of her acting making the reversal of fortunes that begets the opera’s lieto fine surprisingly believable.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-sopranos ZOIE REAMS as Mandane (left) and VIVICA GENAUX as Dario (right) in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Gli amanti provati: mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Mandane (left) and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Dario (right) in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

Amongst Idaspe’s characters, Mandane—a princess of the house of Media who pines for Dario—was most maligned by the production. Neither her involvement in the drama nor her motivations were fully discernible. Nonetheless, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams claimed for Mandane a place at the core of the drama, her opulent-toned, deeply-felt vocalism imparting the profundity of the princess’s passion for Dario. In Act One, Reams sang ‘Ch’io non sia felice un giorno?’ entrancingly, her sultry timbre illuminating textual subtleties. Her account of ‘Che bell’ardire’ in Act Three was similarly hypnotic, her phrasing again influenced as much by the meaning of the words as by musical cadences. The allure of the voice and the vigor of Reams’s utterance of recitative made the paucity of Mandane’s music especially regrettable, but her artistry prevailed by making every line of the part momentous.

The Persian king Artaxerxes I was a frequent visitor to operatic stages in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. The magnanimous change of heart in the opera’s final minutes notwithstanding, Broschi’s portrait of the Achaemenid monarch in Idaspe is decidedly unflattering, as is that in Artaserse, a 1734 London pasticcio to which Broschi contributed at least one aria. In Quantum Theatre’s production, tenor Karim Sulayman’s Artaserse was unquestionably a despot, but his tyranny was enacted with undeniable suavity and charisma. Throughout the evening, the fervor of his delivery of recitatives was complemented by the refinement of his singing of arias. ‘Pugnai per amore’ in Act One was declaimed with stinging intensity, the text enunciated with libidinous bravado.

Artaserse’s aria in Act Two, ‘Prestami i dardi, nume bendato,’ was approached with indefatigable confidence. the divisions boldly and accurately voiced. When Sulayman started to sing ‘Deh, ti piega’ in Act Three, an Artaserse capable of kindness and mercy was heard for the first time. Centered in the best part of his voice, the aria was phrased with delicacy and ornamented with great restraint, the trills crisp and the sotto voce at the top of the stave ideally projected. The touching beauty of Sulayman’s vocalism in this scene offered glimpses of the noble spirit that would later engender a metamorphosis from vengeance to reconciliation.

IN REVIEW: tenor KARIM SULAYMAN as Artaserse (left) and soprano PASCALE BEAUDIN as Berenice (right) in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Il rè e la principessa: tenor Karim Sulayman as Artaserse (left) and soprano Pascale Beaudin as Berenice (right) in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

Händel composed some of the most iconic rôles in his London operas for soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, who won praise in the Eighteenth Century for the emotional immediacy of her portrayals. In his music for the princess Berenice in Idaspe, Broschi endeavored to exploit the qualities for which Cuzzoni was renowned, assigning her arias in slower tempi in which she could use the voice to enkindle pathos. In Quantum Theatre’s production, soprano Pascale Beaudin proved to be a superb Twenty-First-Century exponent of parts written for Cuzzoni, her performance of Berenice’s music reaching great heights of expressivity. The opening bars of ‘Un certo non sò’ in Act One disclosed the singer’s affinity for the rôle, the vocal line traversed with unaffected eloquence.

In Act Two, Beaudin sang ‘Vieni, o sonno, e le mie pene’ ravishingly, pronouncing each syllable of the text with purpose, and she joined with her Idaspe and Dario in an exhilarating voicing of their terzetto. The aria for Berenice in Act Three of this Idaspe, ‘Sì, traditor tu sei,’ was interpolated from Broschi’s La Merope, supplying Beaudin with a showcase for her gleaming navigation of triplets and exciting staccati. The music’s difficulties, confronted intrepidly, contributed to the indignant aloofness of her portrayal. If contemporary accounts can be trusted, Cuzzoni could not have rivaled Beaudin’s physical glamour, but Beaudin’s singing of Berenice’s music earned approbation similar to that inspired by Cuzzoni’s vocal virtues.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX as Dario in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Guerriero di bravura: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Dario in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

A sibling’s comprehensive knowledge of his brother’s vocal constitution yielded writing for the rôle of Artaserse’s brother Dario that surely tested even Farinelli’s technical prowess. Casting today’s singers in parts written for Farinelli is difficult, but Quantum Theatre triumphed by entrusting Dario to a singer whose performances of music composed for the great castrato—including two of Dario’s arias—are widely acclaimed, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. The spectacular bravura singing expected of Genaux was astounding, but her depiction of Dario did not rely upon coloratura to captivate the audience. With Italian diction better than that of some native speakers, she ignited recitatives with theatricality and limned the pensiveness of the Largo aria in Act One, ‘Tutto amore al caro bene.’ Genaux has perhaps sung the daunting aria ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ more often than any other active singer, but her familiarity with the music effected no contempt in this performance, in which the dizzying fiorature were dispatched with awing mastery.

The contrast between Dario’s heroic resolve and his inner uncertainty was particularly apparent in Genaux’s portrayal. The Largo aria in Act Two, ‘Ombra fedele anch’io,’ was touchingly sung, the triplet figurations evincing the palpitations of Dario’s suffering heart, and she, too, enunciated her lines in the terzetto at the act’s end with poignancy. Even without the da capo of ‘Pastorel che trova alfine’ in Act Three, Genaux conveyed the full spectrum of Dario’s emotions, ultimately taming Artaserse’s fury by humbly divulging the character’s true identity. Listeners who anticipated pulse-quickening singing of divisions from Genaux were not disappointed, but the greater success of her performance was her deployment of virtuosity as a dramatic device.

The castrato’s collaborations with Händel and Nicola Porpora in the first decades of the Eighteenth Century having garnered acclaim in Europe’s musical circles, it is possible that Broschi was nearly as cognizant of Nicolini’s vocal faculties as he was of Farinelli’s. As sung in Pittsburgh by countertenor John Holiday, Idaspe’s music matched Dario’s in theatrical effectiveness. The eponymous protagonist seemed remote in Act One until Holiday started to sing ‘All’ardir di questo brando,’ in which the disguised king’s pride and resilience coursed through the vocal line. The beauty of Holiday’s voice shone in Idaspe’s Largo aria in Act Two, ‘O bella mano sei come la seta,’ the mood of which impelled singing of beguiling lyricism, and in the dire exchanges with Berenice and Dario in the terzetto.

Facing execution in Act Three, Holiday’s Idaspe grew more determined as his tormentor, Artaserse, became desperate. The accompagnato ‘Artaserse, che pensi?’ was recited with Shakespearean gravity, Idaspe’s disdain for his captor’s oppression glinting in the singer’s voice. The indomitable hero denouncing Artaserse’s treachery, his singing of ‘Mostro crudel, che fai?’ was electrifying. In the opera’s penultimate and final scenes, Holiday’s vocalism, inviolably musical throughout the performance, burned with dramatic fire, his upper register gleaming. Like the opera itself, this Idaspe refused to accept oblivion, fighting unrelentingly to recover the status of which he was mercilessly deprived. Restored to his rightful rank and united with his true love, Idaspe’s joy radiated from Holiday’s singing.

Staging Baroque operas in the USA is a gamble—thankfully, one that more companies are willing to take. Even so, deviating from the small number of Händel works with which American operagoers are relatively acquainted is a still-greater risk. That Quantum Theatre’s Artistic Director Karla Boos selected not only a Baroque opera but one by a neglected composer as the company’s first foray into producing opera on a large scale is indicative of both artistic daring and trust in the adventurousness of the Pittsburgh community. Naysayers invariably argue that operas like Broschi’s Idaspe have been dormant for centuries because they are undeserving of revival. Quantum Theatre’s production affirmed that Idaspe was merely awaiting the gathering of a cast suited to its demands.