Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ars Minerva's La Circe

Céline Ricci and her Ars Minerva company presented their third annual production of an obscure 17th century Venetian opera at the ODC Theatre on 17th Street, and once again it was a musical and stylistic triumph. The piece this time was La Circe, a 1665 opera by Pietro Andrea Ziani about the sorceress famous from her appearances in Homer's Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphosis. In this version of the tale, Ulysses has just dumped her and fled with his remaining sailors, which puts her into a very bad mood and leads to much manipulation, sorcery and malice towards those unfortunate enough to be sharing the island with her. These include (left to right, above) Kyle Stegall as Glauco who she wants as her boy toy; Jasmine Johnson as her gardener Egle; Aurélie Veruni as the virginal Scilla who Circe turns into a sea monster; Jonathan Smucker as Gligorio, a comic servant who has been shipwrecked with his mistress; Katherine Hutchinson as an aerial acrobat who fills in the dance sections of the opera; Céline Ricci as the sorceress Circe; Igor Vieira as a trio of characters; Ryan Belongie as Pirro, a shipwrecked aristocrat who Circe also lusts after; and Kindra Scharich as Andromecha, Pirro's wife who pretends to be his sister.

The entire cast sang superbly, including Kyle Stegall in his merman outfit above, and they were accompanied by a brilliant chamber orchestra consisting of Adam Cockerham (above right) on theorbo, Derek Tam conducting from the harpsichord, Gretchen Claassen on cello, Addi Liu on viola, and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci on violins.

It is amazing that music as good as this has been left undiscovered for so many centuries. The duet which ended the first act between countertenor Ryan Belongie and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich was so beautiful that it seems impossible it should be lost. Plus, the role of Circe is wild, incorporating just about every emotion imaginable.

There are plenty of instances of confusing gender in Renaissance and Baroque opera, but I was still unprepared for Jasmine Johnson's portrayal of Egle. The character is a woman pretending to be a man for most of the evening, and it wasn't until the last fifteen minutes that I realized the exquisitely beautiful voice was actually female rather than a male countertenor.

Jonathan Smucker as Gligorio was very funny as the down-to-earth servant who wants very much to live, thank you, while his mistress keeps imploring death to take her away from miserable misfortune.

His fondness for wine leads to unfortunate results, though, when he and Igor Vieira (below right) are transformed into swine. (The well-done projections were designed by Patricia Nardi.)

Matthew Nash (center, with Céline Ricci and Igor Vieira) designed the witty male costumes, including an Elvis ensemble for Kyle Stegall below.

Stegall's tenor was pure and plaintive, and he made for a funny, convincingly romantic cad, but again, all the singers were wonderful. Between Ars Minerva, West Edge Opera and Opera Parallele, the Bay Area has three of the most adventurous small opera companies in the world, and a large part of their current artistic success is the incredible roster of local musical talent, both vocal and instrumental. I can't wait to see what they unearth next.

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