We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, February 24, 2024


 The Cast of Cavalli's Erismena

When Francesco Cavalli composed the music for Erismena, opera was in its infancy. The work premiered in Venice in the mid 17th c. and is reported to have been a success. The music is absolutely gorgeous with subtle harmonic touches that could be better described by an expert in Baroque music. The libretto by Aurelio Aureli seems influenced by Shakespeare's comedies with lots of gender bending and unpredictable twists and turns, surprising revelations, and a happy ending.

The credit for the opera's success at Juilliard this week rests on the shoulders of  the nine post-graduate students of the Vocal Arts Department, the performances of the instrumental ensemble led by Maestro Avi Stein, and the heroic work of Director Lisenka Heijboer Castañon who took on a challenge of immense proportion. We never read the Director's Notes until after the opera so we can allow the work to speak for itself. How gratifying it was to not have to read the customary drivel about what the director was trying to say. 

Rather, this artist of the stage employed her notes to describe the Herculean task of assembling an opera from several extant versions and laboring to discover the essence of the opera in a way that would be meaningful for the audience. That we understood the story, in spite of confusing names and an even more confusing storyline, is evidence of her success. Participating in the revision of Aureli's libretto were Mo. Stein, Scenic and Costume Designer Julian Crouch, and Ligiana Costa. One never had the feeling of "too many cooks". Fortunately, the prologue was omitted since it added nothing to the story.

For us, the libretto had many angles and many stories to tell. One of them was about finding out your true identity, another was about the fickleness of lovers, another still about the wanton exercise of power, yet another about accepting the losses of aging, not to mention the value of forgiveness. Yet, it all came together as a meaningful whole.

The aging King Eramante was played by the entire ensemble carrying a model of a kingly head with four arms, manipulated by various cast members who also sang his lines in turn. A frightening nightmare about losing his crown and his power has made him rather testy. He wants to marry the beautiful Aldimira (portrayed by the silver-voiced and appropriately beautiful soprano Song Hee Lee) who has grown up in his court. She already has two lovers--the Iberian Prince Erineo who is disguised as a servant (whose low-lying part was effectively handled by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Bell) and the gallant Orimeno, (terrific tenor Geun-hyeong Han) who pulls feathers from his helmet and bestows them on others.

Aldimira is fickle and toys with her lovers until she meets the titular character Erismena (marvelous mezzo-soprano Tivoli Treloar) who has disguised herself as a male warrior from Armenia who was injured in battle and rescued by two compassionate members of the enemy forces, Orimeno and Argippo (the very fine baritone Dongwei Shen). They take her to Aldimira who, thinking she is a man, promptly falls head over heels in love. (Oh, that naughty child Amor with his bow and arrow!)

The eponymous Erismena was loved and abandoned by Erineo who is really Idraspe. She recognizes him and wants revenge but he doesn't recognize her.
It is interesting how this all turns out. We know how librettists make use of a deus ex machina to sort things out!

Since this is a comedy, we must have our comic relief which comes in the person of the aging Alcesta who once was a wet nurse (we won't tell you who she nursed) and is now bemoaning her loss of beauty. In a directorial stroke of genius, the part, originally written for a contralto, was performed by the bearded baritone Trevor Haumschilt-Rocha dressed in a 17th c. gown, complete with panniers. He was clearly having a great deal of fun with this role, almost as much as we had from watching and listening.

There is also a secondary romance between Argippo and Flerida played by the winsome soprano Gemma Nha. The other roles were also well sung. Bass Younggwang Park sang the part of Diarte, a prison guard. Mezzo-soprano Kate Morton sang the role of Clerio, servant to Erineo/Idraspe. Everyone handled the lavish decoration of the vocal line with aplomb.

We enjoyed the singing all around, especially because the diction was quite clear, making the titles redundant. However, having listened to the video recording from the Aix-en-Provence Festival of 2017 with counter-tenor Jakob Josef Orlinski (an alumnus of Juilliard) as Orimeno, we strongly prefer the Italian version. As one might expect, the rhythm of the Italian language matches the melody far better than English. The English libretto was created for the British public a couple decades after its Venetian premiere and was quite a success there. The language is rather archaic and, we repeat, we think it should have been performed in the original Italian.

The instrumental ensemble. made use of harpsichords, a pair of violins, a cello, a theorbo, and a harp. How gorgeously they played Cavalli's music! We just learned from the program book that Barbara Strozzi, one of our favorite Baroque composers, was a student of Cavalli.

We particularly admired the scenic design and costumes of Julian Crouch. The set was simple but effective--a wide short staircase leading up to the stage. Six Roman shades separated the downstage and upstage playing areas.  Panels were raised and lowered as necessary.  Contrasting with the simple sets, the costuming was lavish and effective in limning the characters. The photo above will tell you more than our words.

We would call the evening a complete success, leaving us smiling broadly and thinking about fate and the vagaries of love.

© meche kroop

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