Saturday, November 23, 2019

A comic charmer in a modern world premiere of a baroque rarity arrives in lively flamboyant style from San Francisco’s Ars Minerva

In the latter part of the 17th century, Domenico Freschi no doubt sermonised his Roman Catholic beliefs as a priest in the northern Italian town of Vicenza. He was also maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Vicenza, writing church music for the parishioners. The young man of the cloth had a side job too, as a composer of at least 16 known operas - though known to very few today. But in comes San Francisco’s Ars Minerva and Freschi gets some decidedly expert attention in a work that shimmies along in a delightful evening of music and storytelling in flamboyant style and deliciously sung form.

Nikola Printz as Ermelinda 
What is notable about Ermelinda, a 'dramma per musica' penned by Freschi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piccioli in 1680, is the economy of means by which the drama is drawn. The ternary ‘da capo’ form is absent and action is briskly carried forward with dominant use of the ‘cavatina’, or short operatic arias. Plump with melodic charm, it’s all over within two easy hours, including a 20-minute interval, under Artistic Director Céline Ricci’s lively flowing direction.

It’s a comically charged story where lovers have hurdles to jump, love can be supposedly mad and deceptions reveal truths. Ermelinda is shuffled off to the countryside by her father Aristeo who, much like Verdi’s Rigoletto, intends to shield her from urban life’s temptations. Of course, it doesn’t work. Ermelinda’s secret lover, Prince Ormondo, has followed her. He’s disguised as Clorindo, a peasant, and is fortuitously invited to stay with the nobleman Armidoro. But Armidoro’s sister, Ermelinda’s friend Rosaura, takes a shine to Clorindo and Armidoro has a thing for Ermelinda. Twists and turns ensue in this pantomime of sorts on its way to a happy ending as Freschi entertainingly demonstrates a realist’s approach in a not so absurd set of circumstances. 

Sara Couden as Ormindo
We’re in Phoenicia, an apparently fabricated setting having no relationship with the ancient east Mediterranean ancient civilisation. Nonetheless, with designer Entropy’s evocatively rendered settings, Phoenicia reveals its bucolic attributes in projections integrated cleverly with the storytelling under Thomas Bowersox’s seductive lighting and its exotic flair with touches of Arabia in Matthew Nash’s masterful costumes. 

Up close and intimate, the performance shows itself as a beautifully cast unit with voice types transposed convincingly. For it, strong identity is given to the two female parts and two female voices take on male parts likely written for castrati. Ermelinda’s father Aristeo, a rather insipid character adorned by some handsomely crafted music, is sung in countertenor. Justin Montigne acquits himself commendably in the role, measuring his capabilities sensibly with his bright and crisp tone while a nervous twitch indicates a degree of madness of one trying to cure the madness of one acting it to conceal their identity and feelings - and it’s not that confusing!

Justin Montigne as Aristeo, Kindra Scharich as Rosaura
and Sara Couden as Ormindo 
Nudging ahead as most impressive, gloriously sonorous contralto Sara Couden’s Ormondo is an endearing sort - a prince doing his utmost to act like a bumpkin - and she interprets his part with hugely textured vocal appeal, one as rich as plum pudding, with lashings of comic aplomb to go with it.

In the title role, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is polished and plush in voice as a spirited and quick-thinking Ermelinda. Printz’s elegance of line and emotive calibration radiates splendidly in Ermelinda’s rickety journey to secure her love and you can’t help but follow her expressive eyes as she does so. Rosaura is a vivacious firecracker of a girl to whom mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich makes a delightful and ostentatious floral concoction in voice and costume and, portraying a head-held-high aristocratic Armidoro as the third mezzo-soprano plying her trade, Deborah Rosengaus’ vocal radiance and refined wafer-like vibrato completes an uplifting evening of singing. 

Positioned in clear view to the side and humorously involved in the running, Grammy-nominated harpsichordist Jory Vinikour conducted five musicians from the keyboard giving balance and lilt to the score. Together with Gretchen Claassen on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo, the most consistent and emotive music emanated. A small quibble but a little more warmth from the smaller strings would have added increased fluidity.

Fancy, though, sitting down to experience an opera that hasn’t been staged since its premiere season almost 340 years ago. In this modern world premiere as part of Ars Minerva’s fifth annual production of such rarities, another piece of history that builds the story of opera has left the museum and made its mark in present times.

Ars Minerva
B.Way Theatre, 3153 17th Street San Francisco
Until 24th November 2019

Production Photos: Teresa Tam

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