Opera's Bold Programming of Baroque Opera for
by William Thomas Walker
November 20, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC: Eschewing traditional repertoire, UNC Opera director Terry Rhodes chose a complex baroque opera for their fall concert in Hill Hall on the University of North Carolina campus. L'Egisto (1643) by Francesco Cavalli (1602-76) was given in a new edition prepared by Webb Wiggins and Roger Brunyate of the Peabody Conservatory who prepared a historically informed score, replacing a lush, modern instrument version prepared by Raymond Leppard. Leppard led the Cavalli revival beginning at the Glyndebourne Festival beginning in 1966 with L'Ormindo (1644). Leppard's L'Egisto edition was prepared for the Santa Fe Opera in 1974, a performance of which was broadcast later by PBS. The new edition calls for a stylistically correct small ensemble of period instruments and a score giving plenty of scope for improvisation. It contained further modifications prepared by Lyle Nordstrom for his use at North Texas University. Brent Wissick led the musicians superbly for these two performances. Jeanne Fischer coached the dance episodes, the physical gestures of each character, and supervised the supertitles which were given on a large screen TV to the left of the stage and orchestra.
Opera had its origins in a late Renaissance when a group, called the "Florentine Camerata," attempted to recreate what was believed to be the musical practice of the ancient Greeks. The ancients were believed to have used something between ordinary speech and melodic singing. These early efforts culminated in the operas of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) such as L'Ofeo. Cavalli was one of the most important of Monteverdi's younger contemporaries. According to Thomas Walker in his biographical article in New Grove Baroque Masters (1984) "Cavalli's aria style, while essentially syllabic, makes use of melismatic flourishes; these are more often than not madrigalesque image portrayals, but their real function is increasingly that of 'bel canto' writing." By the time of Cavalli's prime, operas had left the realm of private court performance and had begun to be given public performance in theaters, especially in Venice.
These early operas and opera seria (with full arias replacing dramatic madrigal-like delivery) drew heavily of classical Greek and Roman mythology with spats between the gods playing havoc on pairs or more of lovers who get separated and seem to or really do fall in love with others. Choice features of these works are dramatic mad scenes, laments for lost love, and especially in Cavalli's operas, hilarious, bawdy servants, most often a female character sung by a male in drag. A descendent of the sun-god Apollo, the hero of the opera Egisto loves Clori. Lido is betrothed to Climente. Pirates capture Egisto and Climente. To spite Apollo, Venus persuades Cupid to cause Clori and Lido to fall in love with each other. Amid a further flurry of arrows, Climente's brother King Ipparco also has fallen in love with Clori and vows bloody vengeance against Lido. Egisto's madness and Cupid's efforts eventually softens Clori's heart for the hero. Comic interludes include fatal victims of cupid's arrows, Dido, Hero, Phaedra, and Semele, harassing him when they capture him on Mount Erebus. Apollo rescues him on condition Cupid sets the lovers aright. Ipparco's lusty servant, Dema, an elderly woman portrayed by a tenor in drag, regales the audience with a detailed account of the amatory adventures of her youth.
Baroque improvisation had been heavily emphasized over the course of the semester. The players in the all-student orchestra of period style instruments had taken both an intensive course and had benefitted from an intensive week of study with members of the well-known Early Music group Tragicomedia. The level of playing was very good. The some 24 players, used sparingly by Cavalli's score, made full dramatic effect. More often, singers were supported by a skilled continuo group of lute, theorbo, violas da gamba, and harpsichord.
Director Rhodes fielded a large cast of very able singers with separate leads for the two performances and no doubling of the main characters, except for the key comic role of Dema. Male singers' voices mature later than those of women so it was no surprise the women singers had the more consistently even and finished vocal production. Two singers were hits with the audience and justly so because they combined good vocalization with the most complete use of gestures and body language. Soprano Noelle Harb was impressive as the graceful, warm voiced goddess Aurora or Dawn. She excelled even more as the energetic and mischievous Amor or Cupid. Her body language brought the hyperactive boy to life utterly, overcoming the visual cues of a very feminine form. Baritone Phil Denny was surprisingly full-bosomed as the very amorous old maid Dema (the role is usually a tenor). His every gesture was telling and his singing was apt and effective. In short, he was a hoot!
The lead singers made a strong cast. Lydia Kiefer brought a strong, secure, and even soprano voice to the role of Clori. Tenor John Charles Clark had the juiciest role as Egisto and he did well in his two dramatic mad scenes as well as in his lament. Both baritone Zack Ballard and soprano Clare FitzGerald were very effective as the fickle Lidio and his faithful Climene. Tenor Kevin Shaffer brought a whimsical touch as Prince Ipparco with his emotions changing on a dime from murderous wrath toward Lidio to blind love of Clori.
Young bass Risden McElroy's gestures were somewhat wooden or semaphoric as Night in the opening Prologue and, less so, as Apollo rescuing Cupid. His vocalization brought an appropriate weight to the roles. Hell hath no fury like classical heroines who died for Love! The tragic-comic scene, in which four such great sufferers get Cupid in their clutches on Mount Erebus, was well done. An aptly ashen Semele was sung by soprano Emily Smith while the eager sword-wielding Queen Dido was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Joncie Sarratt. Fedra was sung by soprano Joanna Burke and Hero was sung by soprano Hannah DeBlock. Cupid's scheming Mother, Venus, was vividly brought to life by mezzo-soprano Jessica Hiltabidle. In other minor roles were baritone Alex Daly as both Ipparco's servant Cinea and Hour No. 1, an attendant of Apollo and soprano Lauren Wallace as Hour No. 2, and soprano Sarah Whitford as Hour No. 3. Whitford had played harp in the orchestra during the first two acts and, switching to an appropriate gown, played her harp onstage as she sang her brief part.