Saturday, December 1, 2018

Ars Minerva: Greek Tragedy Goes to the Carnival

Last night in the ODC Theater, Ars Minerva presented the first of its two performances of this season’s full-length opera production. Led by its Executive Director and mezzo Céline Ricci, Ars Minerva has pursued an impressive agenda in its goal to revive forgotten operas from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This season’s offering, Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, was first performed in 1738 during the celebration of the Munich Carnival; and there is a good chance that last night was the first time it was presented following that premiere occasion.

The primary source for the libretto, written by Apostolo Zeno, is Iphigenia in Aulis, the last of the extant works of Euripides. The plot concerns the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, whose troops are waiting at Aulis, in Boeotia, to set sail to do battle with the Trojans. At the beginning of the play, they are waiting for a favorable wind to arise; but they have been waiting for a long time. The seer Calchas explains that Agamemnon has offended Artemis, and the goddess is withholding the winds as punishment. She will only release them after he sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. His wife, Clytemnestra, escorts Iphigenia to Aulis under the pretext that she will be married to Achilles.

With the exception of Calchas, all of these characters appear in Zeno’s libretto. He also includes one of the characters that Jean Racine added in writing his own play about Iphigenia. That is Ulysses, who, as in the Homeric epic, serves as a trusted advisor to Agamemnon. Zeno then throws in several characters of his own invention, presumably for the sake of appealing to popular tastes. (Zeno had no problems with popularity. Porta was not the only composer to set his libretto. The Wikipedia page for Euripides’ drama lists the following other composers: Antonio Caldara, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, Nicola Porpora, Girolamo Abos, Giuseppe Sarti , Angelo Tarchi, and Giuseppe Giordani.)

As might be guessed, complications of the heart make for the most popular of tastes. Porta adds Elisena, whom Achilles has promised to marry before learning about Iphigenia. She is then complemented by Teucro, who lives in Aulis and is totally smitten with her. Finally, there is Arcade, who seems to serve as the faithful servant to anyone needing assistance. As might be guessed, Porta incorporated these characters to cater to the tastes of those celebrating Carnival.

This then raises the critical challenge of the opera. How does one present an intensely serious tale to an audience determined to indulge in as much revelry as they can before the onset of Lent? Porta had to walk a fine line in following Zeno’s text, and Ricci did an impressive job in providing a staging to follow that line. Thus, in the first act, after Iphigenia arrives, Agamemnon explains that he has to perform a sacrifice before sailing for Troy. Iphigenia asks if she will be able to attend the sacrifice.

As those words appeared in the supertitles, I heard some nervous laughter coming from those sitting behind me. I would stipulate that in 1738 Munich, the laughter did not have to be nervously concealed. They were there to have a good time and would have been determined to get the most out of any situation that came close to comedy. (The notes that Paul V. Miller provided for the program book claimed that those situations were “almost nonexistent” in the libretto; but, leave it to an audience that has overindulged in wine and/or beer to make all they could out of that “almost!”)

Ricci tended to go for the more serious side of the narrative. Nevertheless, there is an onslaught of confusions during the second act, which almost seems to own more to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream  (without any supernatural interference) than to Euripides! What is most important is that Ricci tried to grasp the humanity of each of the characters in Zeno’s libretto and make sure that those qualities would resonate with her audience.

For those who know what happens both during and after the Trojan War, Ricci’s characterizations were particularly compelling. In the Homeric epic there is bad blood between Achilles (sung by Ricci herself) and Agamemnon (mezzo Nikola Printz). (Early in the epic, Athena has to intervene to keep Achilles from killing Agamemnon while the latter is sleeping.) That tension pervades the entirety of Ricci’s staging with powerful impact.

Similarly soprano Sawnette Sulker’s embodiment of Clytemnestra was entirely consistent with what we know will happen when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War. Soprano Aura Veruni, on the other hand, presents Iphigenia almost as if she were a naïf, so concerned with obedience that she never quite grasps the reality of her fate (which, ultimately, she avoids with only the thinnest of explanation in the libretto).

Soprano Aura Veruni (photograph by Olivier Allard, courtesy of Ars Minerva)

Still, Porta’s opera is a bit of an endurance test. With three acts and two intermissions, the initial estimate of a duration of three hours fell short of the actual duration by half an hour. Conducting from the harpsichord, Derek Tam led a string ensemble at a consistently brisk pace. Nevertheless, the prevailing form was that of the da capo aria; so just about every solo took its own good time along the path from beginning to end. Nevertheless, for those prepared for such endurance, there was much to be gained from the rhetorical insights that Porta applied to support Zeno’s texts; and, after all, eighteenth-century audience were more used to such longueurs than those in the current century.

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