Ars Minerva's Messalina
November 21, 2021
* Notes *
The inimitable Ars Minerva is presenting the North American premiere of Carlo Pallavicino's Messalina this weekend at ODC Theater in San Francisco. The Saturday performance was a raucous romp through the Roman imperial court around 47 CE focused on Messalina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius. There are many love triangles and mistaken identities, as is so often the case with Baroque opera, and this production wholeheartedly embraces the humor and absurdity of these situations.
As is the case with all of Ars Minerva's operas, this piece by Carlo Pallavicino hasn't been seen in modern times. The opera premiered in 1679 at the Teatro San Salvatore in Venice and features a libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli that deals with martial infidelity, jilted lovers, and moral turpitude. Pallavicino's music is very beautiful and the singing and playing certainly seemed to do it justice.
This opera does feel a bit more serious than some of the others we've seen at Ars Minerva, there is an undercurrent of violence that is more real than some of the sillier plots of many a Baroque drama. Perhaps because the historical figure of Empress Messalina was indeed executed for her sexual licentiousness along with her lover Caius. There are also abductions and rape attempts of Floralba, the wife of Claudio's advisor Tullio.
Executive Artistic Director of Ars Minerva Céline Ricci staged the piece as a boisterous caper. The scenes are changed using projections of paintings and props brought in and out by stagehands. It keeps the momentum going without much disruption. I very much enjoyed Marina Polakoff's costumes, a mash-up of contemporary and classical styles. Male characters (or in one case those disguised as males) wore brightly-colored suits whose jackets might have some toga-like draping on one side and oxford shoes in matching hues. Messalina's gowns were so much fun, lots of pink roses and elaborate headdresses. She had a fantastical collar shaped like a lotus at one point and a fabulous balloon-filled skirt for the final scene.
The music sounded lovely, the orchestra is only six people, basically a string quartet with therorbo and harpsichord. Conductor/harpsichordist Jory Vinikour keeps everyone together, the playing has a bracing, brisk quality that is very pleasing.
The cast boasts a lot of fine singers. The lowest voice featured is Zachary Gordin, whose light baritone has a certain smoky darkness. His Tergisto contrasted nicely with mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, his betrayed erstwhile fiancée Erginda (disguised most of the opera as Alindo). Scharich's sound is warm and solid. She also had the funniest sight-gag of the evening, as she reveals her identity by baring her obviously-fake breasts near the end of Act III. Gordin did have a very amusing scene in Act II when he puts on a bunny tail and ears and hops off stage too. Our other secondary couple Tullio, played by tenor Kevin Gino, and Floralba, portrayed by soprano Shawnette Sulker, were likewise strong. Gino's voice is well-supported and Sulker has a pretty flutey sound. Tenor Marcus Paige as Lismeno is the only character in this story who isn't directly involved in romantic intrigues. His resonant voice stood out, and his sly commentary on the action through his physicality was memorable.
Tenor Patrick Hagen's Caio, the much younger lover of Messalina, was consistent, his voice has a reediness to it that is pleasantly plaintive. As Emperor Claudio mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus sounds icily pristine, an unsettlingly foil to the jealous, violent nature of the character. Soprano Aura Veruni seemed to perfectly embody Messalina, her voice has such a spark to it, so alive and clear. Her movements are also very decisive and conveyed humor well.
* Tattling *
It really seems that the pandemic has confused some audience members about how to behave. There was so much talking behind me in Row C around Seats 8 and 10 that I didn't know how to react either, I simply froze. Thankfully my 615 days of being in close quarters with chattering children have honed my ability to focus.
I did see many friends at this event, and it was a joy to experience live opera with them again.