10 September 2017

Ars Minerva: La Circe

This Friday and Saturday I was at the ODC Theater in the Mission to see La Circe, Ars Minerva's revival of an opera unheard since 1665, when Pietro Andrea Ziani (and perhaps a few other hands) composed it for the birthday celebrations of the Holy Roman Emperor. This is only the third production by Ars Minerva, an enterprising and invaluable company dedicated to reviving forgotten works of the Venetian baroque, but each production has been outstanding and delightful and a useful reminder of the operatic riches that remain yet uncovered beyond the constant revivals of Traviata and Bohème. Local opera lovers are deeply in debt to mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, the founder, Artistic Director, and guiding force of the group.

She took on the title role of the ancient Greek enchantress Circe with her usual conviction and force. Although Circe is best remembered for her ultimate failure to enchant Ulysses, who persuaded her not to turn his sailors into domestic animals and who eventually left her to return to Ithaca and the faithful Penelope, that wanderer does not appear in this work. Instead, the whole thing takes place right after his abrupt departure, which hangs over the geometrically complicated love affairs and grounds Circe's anger in her recent betrayal by him. The opera opens with two sly and cheerful nymphs singing about the joys of youth, an ebullience rapidly pushed aside when the mournful and shrouded Circe enters, shadowed by an also shrouded dancer, wondering where her lover has gone.

The production (by Ricci) was described in the program as semi-staged, but it seemed fully realized to me. Clever use is made of the intimate theater space, with some characters entering from the back of the audience, others going off to the sides to eavesdrop, either by the exit or by the band on the far edge of the stage. We were close enough to the action for Scylla to hand out lovely chaplets of tiny orange roses to some in the first and second rows, as well as to the musicians. (I was skipped on Friday, but last night she gave me a garland, though sadly it was not large enough for my massive cranium, as otherwise I would have worn it all the way on BART back to my house.) As with Ars Minerva's previous productions, the setting is mostly provided by projections, including lovely and evocative watercolorish paintings by Patricia Nardi as well as stylish black-and-white photographs and collaged old engravings. One filmed view of the island trees showed them opening up so we could see the heroes captivated and transformed by Circe; one composite shot of sottish grinning half-pigs-half-humans was particularly comic and unsettling. There were a couple of dance sequences, performed here by a single aerial acrobat/dancer, Katherine Hutchinson, who also choreographed her striking routines. Her elegant entanglements in a hanging black drapery perfectly symbolized the often self-inflicted love complications of the story.

The main action is the transformation of Scylla into a sea monster by the scheming Circe; as is often the case with water-women in myth and folklore, Scylla has a coy, flirtations, but cold personality, rejecting the love of Glaucus, whose desirability is the fulcrum of the plot. He, passionately in love with the indifferent Scylla, in turn has abandoned the faithful Aegle, who has disguised herself as a man, Floreno, in order to find him. . . . but there's really no point in spelling out the love complications. They are conventional yet also personal to the lamenting individuals affected. This way of feeling universal and even standard-issue troubles as new and particular to oneself is one of the surprisingly realistic aspects of baroque opera, a genre that often spends its time among the nymphs, gentle shepherds, and doughty heroes of bygone times. There are melancholy and thoughtful arias on the relations among grief, anger, longing, and love.

Ars Minerva is a young company without a lot of spare cash, but I never look at their productions and think they're cutting corners to cut costs, the way I sometimes do at better-funded houses. This observation is particularly true of the projections, but the costumes (by Matthew Nash for the men and Lindsi Bristow for the women)  also ranged from suitable to delightful, from the black robes of the sorceress to the ensemble of glittering white-and-gold pants and jacket (no shirt), with their wave- or fin-like scalloping, for the watery Glaucus. In a neat reminder of the island setting, shoes were not worn.

The cast was strong: beautiful voices in the service of memorable performances. As mentioned earlier, Ricci was an intense Circe. Kyle Stegall gave a silken lissomeness to Glauco (Glaucus), and Kindra Scharich gave gorgeous and touching voice to the faithful Andromaca (as well as the Second Nymph at the beginning). Jasmine Johnson was an ardent and striking powerhouse as Aegle/Floreno, whose pain at her abandonment by Glauco kept breaking through her masquerade; though she gets her man at the end, she seems still angry in her triumph and he seems less than happy in his acquiescence, which was one of the clever and insightful touches in the staging. (I would love to know if it was played this way originally, or if there was just a conventional "we're all happy and in love now" moment to seal off the story). Ryan Belongie was a graceful Pyrrhus, the faithful lover of Andromaca (in a minor flub on Saturday night he seemed to forget his place for a moment and had to go over to Derek Tam at the harpsichord for a prompt). Aurélie Veruni was pert perfection as the chaste Scylla (as well as the First Nymph), but also well able to express her grief at her unwonted metamorphosis. Jonathan Smucker was sharply amusing as the cynical comic sidekick Gligoro, and Igor Viera brought a commanding and authoritative presence to several smaller roles.

The music was consistently engaging, ranging from occasional sprightliness to rage and grief. Though it is believed Ziani composed the opera, there were some parts – a dance sequence, a passacaglia towards the end – that are attributed to other composers who are roughly his contemporaries. The collaborative nature of early modern theater is a hot topic right now, and it is interesting to see that it is as true of Venetian opera as it was of Elizabethan theater. The information about the different composers was explained to us beforehand by Paul Miller, who also wrote the program notes; I am not a big fan of chat from the stage and frankly would have preferred to have this information (which is interesting but not really relevant to our immediate understanding and enjoyment of the show) restricted to the program notes. Derek Tam led from the harpsichord, and the excellent ensemble was made up of Adam Cockerham on theorbo, Gretchen Claassen on cello, Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci on violin, and Addi Liu on viola.

The opera ends rather abruptly, not with a chorus or a big number but with Circe in solitude, quietly vowing to dedicate herself to the infernal powers. I was reminded of the way some movies end with what is clearly meant to be the set-up for a sequel. Though I suspect no one is going to discover a score of Circe 2: The Enchantening, I still can't wait to see what Ricci and company come up with for their next season.

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