Last night at the ODC Theater, Ars Minerva gave the first of two performances of La Circe, composed by Pietro Andrea Ziani with a libretto by Cristoforo Ivanovich. It was first performed in Vienna in 1665 during Ziani’s service as Kapellmeister to the dowager Empress Eleonora, the third wife of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. The performance took place as part of the birthday celebrations for Ferdinand’s son, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.
Circe is the sorceress best known for her role in the Odyssey. She turned Odysseus’ crew to swine and then tried to seduce Odysseus himself. Escape was only possible through the intervention of Hermes. Ivanovich’s libretto begins shortly after Odysseus’ escape.
In spite of the darkness of Circe’s character established by the Homeric bards, both Ziani and Ivanovich knew that entertaining the emperor was Job #1. One has to wonder how familiar Ivanovich was with the plays of William Shakespeare, since it is not hard to find suggestions of The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Virgil is also part of the mix, since our first encounter with Circe clearly likens her to the abandoned Queen Dido.
Unlike Dido, however, Circe is more interested in revenge than in suicide. In spite of her dark intentions, Ivanovich’s libretto surrounds her with no end of farcical situations. The most important of these involves Glauco’s frustrated pursuit of the nymph Scylla (who is determined to remain a virgin), Circe’s desire for Glauco, and the presence of Glauco’s wife on Circe’s island, where she has disguised herself as the (male) gardener Floreno. Then we have the husband-and-wife survivors of a shipwreck, Pyrrhus and Andromaca, who are separated during the catastrophe and discover each other on the island; and (of course) Pyrrhus attracts Circe’s attention. The complications of these relationships, along with the requisite clowning by servant characters, interleave in ways that keep the plot moving along at a brisk pace without things ever getting too serious.
This rich palette of character types was given a delightful account, both vocally and dramatically, by the Ars Minerva cast. Executive & Artistic Director Céline Ricci took the title role with just the right balance of the comic and the serious. Kyle Stegall presented Glauco as an Elvis impersonator, suggesting that his personal sense of vanity was stronger than his lust for Scylla (given an unabashed personification by Aurélie Veruni that recalled the old Hollywood screwball comedies). Kindra Scharich as Andromaca was the most serious member of the cast, and the blending of her mezzo voice with Ryan Belongie’s countertenor as Pyrrhus was never anything short of ecstatic.
Perhaps the most interesting departure from what Emperor Leopold might have experienced involved the setting for interpolated dance music. In place of choreography for that music, we were given a stunning display of aerial acrobatics conceived and executed by Katherine Hutchinson. This did no more to advance the plot that the “ballet breaks” that were probably originally performed. However, Hutchinson came off almost as one of the spirits of the island that Circe had not been able to tame, diametrically opposed to the relationship Shakespeare established for Ariel and Prospero.
Instrumentation was provided by a one-to-a-part ensemble led by Derek Tam from the harpsichord. His continuo work was supplemented by Adam Cockerham on theorbo and Gretchen Claassen on cello. The upper string parts were taken by violinists Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci and violist Addi Liu. This resulted in transparent sonorities that always fit the vocal work like a glove. While the size of the ODC Theater was probably smaller than the banquet hall in which Leopold’s birthday was celebrated, last night one could relish the intimacy of the presentation, taking the interplay of distress and low comedy on its own terms and honoring the rhetorical flexibility necessary to accommodate the mood swings.