Yesterday evening the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) hosted its latest musical offering. The title of the program was Women of the Mediterranean, and it was conceived and presented by mezzo Céline Ricci, Artistic Director of Ars Minerva. She was joined by two performers from past Ars Minerva productions, soprano Aura Veruni and mezzo Kindra Scharich. All instrumental accompaniment was provided by Derek Tam at the harpsichord.
Ricci created Ars Minerva in 2013 with the mission to engage new audiences for classical music through innovative productions of Baroque operas. The group’s first three productions all involved bringing forgotten music back to life. The first of these La Cleopatra by Daniele da Castrovillari, was presented in March of 2015, followed, a little over a year later, by Carlo Pallavicino’s Le amazoni nell’isole fortunate (the amazons in the fortunate isles). The most recent production was Pietro Andrea Ziani’s La Circe, which was given this past September. Ricci has not only performed in these productions but also covered just about all other aspects from background research to staging.
Céline Ricci in the role of Circe (from the Ars Minerva Web site)
As yesterday evening’s title suggested, the program was based on individual female roles from the operatic repertoire. The historical scope of the selections spanned the period from 1640 (Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone) to 1738 (Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, the next project being prepared for presentation by Ars Minerva). In the past I have often written about how, through his operatic arias, George Frideric Handel was a master of disclosing character traits, often using ternary form to capture the conflicting forces behind those traits. That technique was displayed in all its glory in Ricci’s portrayal of Medea in Handel’s HWV 9 Teseo. However, the other powerful dramatic form in opera was the lament; and that aspect of Handel’s imaginative skill was presented by Veruni, singing the role of Cleopatra in his HWV 17 Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar).
These are but two examples (by the most familiar composer on the program) from an overall presentation that examined nine different female operatic roles, each involving a different personality in a different dramatic situation. Perhaps the most salient virtue of the program was Ricci’s ability to maintain audience attention through the diversity of the offerings and the brief spoken texts through which each character was introduced to the audience. While there was no unifying narrative flow across the entire program, Ricci’s approach to presentation elegantly transcended the fatal trap of reducing the selections to Winston Churchill’s “one damned thing after another.” Through her conception and realization of the program, the attentive listener was drawn to not only the distinguishing musical properties of each selection but also the rich diversity of personalities that could be so penetratingly depicted through those musical properties.