Ars Minerva

Ars Minerva's Ermelinda

Nikola-Printz-Ermelinda-Valentina-Sadiul-Ars-Minerva-2019* Notes * 
Before leaving for Ars Minerva's Ermelinda last night, my 5-year-old asked what the opera was about, and seeing that I was at a loss, he cheerfully let me off the hook, saying I could tell him today after I had seen it. Even after the delightful performance, the convoluted narrative is rather difficult to sum up, but the production is wonderfully campy and the music absolutely beautiful.

The opera by Domenico Freschi hasn't been performed since its 1680 premiere in Piazzola sul Brenta, and Francesco Maria Piccioli's libretto is absurdly incoherent, even by Baroque opera standards. There are, of course, the standard overlapping love triangles along with deceptions involving madness and reported death. The ending is ridiculously abrupt in its resolution, the titular character attempts suicide and suddenly everyone takes her seriously and all is well.

Stage director Céline Ricci leans into the silliness, there are winks and nods to be sure. The one supernumerary, Elizabeth Flaherty has a mustache she puts on and takes off to indicate which servant she is. The orchestra is included in the fun, the leading man Ormondo, love interest of both Ermelinda and Rosaura, pretends to be crazy by hitting the theorbo player and conductor/harpsichordist with sunflowers.

The costumes designed by Matthew Nash are luridly pink and purple ruffles for Ermelinda (pictured, photograph by Valentina Sadiul), a dress of artificial flowers for her friend Rosaura, and lavish brocades and silks for the males.

The tiny orchestra sounded great, conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour has a jauntiness that is very pleasant with the astringency of all these stringed instruments. The two violins, viola, cello, and therorbo were together and filled the space nicely without being overpowering.

Ermelinda-2019The strong and consistent cast is mezzo-heavy. The one countertenor, Justin Montigne as Ermelinda's father Aristeo, has the highest voice, and though not as uniform as the others, he sounds quite flute-like. He was able to wiggle his eyebrows and twitch his face rather impressively when angered by his daughter. Contralto Sara Couden is a dashing Ormondo, her height and stature work in her favor and she has a physicality that is perfect for the various sight-gags in the production. Her face is expressive. She had perhaps two or three sort of froggy sour notes, but her voice is impressively deep and vibrant. I very much enjoyed her "T'adoro si ma nó" ("I adore you yes, but no I don't") as she pretends to be an insane Clorindo, tormenting poor love-sick Rosaura near the end of Act I.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus is Rosaura's brother Armidoro, also in love with title character Ermelinda, and thus, rival to Ormondo. Her voice is light and pretty, her physical appearance less suitably imposing than Couden's. It was amusing to see mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Ermelinda, she is very often in male drag (she was Agamemnon in last year's Ifigenia at Ars Minerva) so seeing her this femme is fun. All the girly colors and lace and corsets! Her voice is clean and clear.

However, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich stole the show as Rosaura. She sings everything from these obscure Baroque operas to contemporary works such as Missy Mazzoli's Breaking the Waves. Her voice has such beautiful warm resonances and her Rosaura was both uproariously comic and richly radiant.

Tattling * 
I attended this opera as part of a group of young people, though I barely (if at all) qualify as this. I arrived at ODC Theater too early and parked myself in the corner of a bench to read and sip tea as I waited, definitely taking up more than my share of space with my Panda backpack. A young couple sat next to me and I was too focused on La Frantumaglia to make more room for them.

When I entered the hall to find my seat, rather close to curtain, I not only made an elderly lady stand up for me, I wasn't even in the correct spot. Much to my chagrin, the same young couple were in the seats right next to mine and since I didn't want to make them get up for me and my friend was on the other end of Row D, I went around muttering "I'll just bother Michael instead." I was too loud and got teased by the Chronicle's classical music critic, who was heading to his seat on the center aisle of the very same row at the exact same time. To add to my sense of being constantly underfoot and in the wrong place, the person from ODC who asked us to silence our electronic devices and pointed out the exits began the announcement with an acknowledgement of our being on stolen Ohlone land.


Ars Minerva's La Circe Review

La-circe-2017* Notes * 
Ars Minerva gave the modern premiere of Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe last night at ODC Theater. It is almost alarming how pretty all the unknown music the group has uncovered is, this being the third Baroque Venetian opera the company has staged. It is clear that there is simply a ton of lovely pieces that languish in obscurity, as with Rameau's Le Temple de la Gloire that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra did in April and Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana recently at West Edge Opera.

Ziani was the organist at Basilica di San Marco and then worked for Eleonor Magdalene of Neuburg in Vienna. He's a generation after Monteverdi and one before Handel, and operas in this period are not at all in the standard opera repertoire.

The music is perfectly attractive, and the plot of La Circe is a standard sort of convoluted Baroque opera inspired by a few lines from Ovid, which involves multiple overlapping love triangles. There is a gorgeous duet at the end of Act I between Pyrrhus and Andromaca, but mostly it is da capo aria after da capo aria for the various voices that highlight a certain low female or high male vocal range.

The breadth of Bay Area musical talent was on full display here and the diversity of sound was impressive. Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, also the leader of Ars Minerva and stage director of this opera, sang a focused and really quite frightening Circe. Her incisive, precise delivery is such a contrast with fellow mezzo Kindra Scharich's smooth, rich tones as Andromaca, not to mention Jasmine Johnson's vivid near baritone as Aegle (who pretends to be the male gardener Floreno for most of the show). The lone soprano was Aurélie Veruni as the hapless Scylla, so carefree and coquettish, wrongfully hated by Circe, who turns her into a sea monster.

Countertenor Ryan Belongie sang Pyrrhus with sweetness, while tenor Kyle Stegall was a charmingly rakish Glauco. Tenor Jonathan Smucker got many laughs as the clownish Gligoro. Rounding out the cast was baritone Igor Vieira, who sang three small roles (Custode del Porto, Tissandro, and Creonte) with ease.

The small orchestra included a harpsichord, two violins, a viola, and a theorbo. The playing was neat and astringent. My miswired brain tasted unripe persimmon after Glauco sees his love Scylla transformed, and oddly my teeth ached for the rest of the opera.

 The staging featured the dancer Katherine Hutchinson. Her work with aerial silks was a wonderful spectacle. Her strength in her first dance and her skin-matching unitard got an audible gasp from the audience.

* Tattling * 
I was mildly surprised about how many of my friends were in the audience, skipping the San Francisco Opera opening for this obscure gem. The audience was attentive and quiet, those that received flower crowns from Scylla in Act I wore them with pride.

The end of this opera was very abrupt.