Gotham Chamber Opera began its 2012-2013 season last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge with a thematic program called “Orientale.” Introduced by Music Director Neal Goren as a program showcasing Eastern music as interpreted by Western composers, the centerpiece of the night was Claudio Monteverdi’s early-17th-century short opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda). The program also included several traditional Armenian instrumental selections and the world premiere of a percussion piece by John Hadfield, as well as songs and operatic excerpts by French, German, and Polish composers expanding on the cross-cultural theme of Europe’s encounters with the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Joining Gotham Chamber Opera’s Early Instrument Ensemble were Armenian-music trio MAYA and the dancers of Company XIV, choreographed by Austin McCormick, who also served as stage director. Maeve H√∂glund (soprano), Zachary Altman (baritone), and Michael Kelly (baritone) sang the diverse works of the program, spanning nearly three centuries of music. (Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera* had to cancel due to illness. Her selections were sung mostly by H√∂glund, and Naomi O’Connell filled in capably in a duet with H√∂glund.)
Monteverdi (1567-1643) was a Venetian composer and musician, whose 1607 composition L’Orfeo is generally considered among the first-if not the first-fully-realized example of opera as a new art form. Il combattimento was first performed in 1624 and ultimately published in Monteverdi’s eighth book of Madrigals 14 years later. For Gotham Chamber Opera, which specializes in rare early music, Monteverdi is an obvious, but perfect, choice; for opera-lovers, it is a significant event to have the opportunity to hear the work performed live (more on future opportunities below). Before getting to Il combattimento, Kelly and Altman sang an elegant baritone duet, Se vittorie s√¨ belle (If Love’s Wars Have Such Beautiful Victories), from that same volume of Monteverdi madrigals.
Despite the modest, semi-staged production, Il combattimento proved surprisingly dramatic and affecting. Most of the singing falls to a narrator, with smaller parts for Tancredi and Clorinda, interjecting lines as the story reaches moments when the characters speak directly. The plot comes from a section of Torquato Tasso‘s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, written in 1580 about the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century (Jerusalem Delivered was a fertile source for numerous operas for hundreds of years). The episode of Tancredi and Clorinda’s battle contains all the melodrama and plot twists anyone could desire from an opera. Christian Tancredi and Muslim Clorinda fall in love despite being members of enemy armies. They meet one night for a cinematic-avant-la-lettre fight, and Tancredi does not recognize Clorinda in her armor. Ultimately, Clorinda is killed, and only then does her lover realize who she is. As she dies, she begs to be baptized as a Christian, which Tancredi does, tenderly carrying the baptismal water to her in his battle helmet. Clorinda dies smiling in the transcendent embrace of her new faith. Not heavy handed at all.
Il combattimento is an exciting composition that tells its story with gripping forward momentum. As the narrator, referred to as “Testo” or, simply, “the text,” Kelly declaimed the story with an expressive and dynamic voice. He began the piece singing heroically of the warriors, but as the story evolved and the music changed to episodes of the fighters’ mutual respect and the ultimate tragedy, Kelly’s tone shifted to convey the tenderness and sadness of the events. Gotham’s small Early Instrument Ensemble, led by Goren on the harpsichord, were equally expressive. They all made Monteverdi and Tasso’s centuries-old works feel vital. When it came time for Tancredi or Clorinda to interject, Altman and H√∂glund stepped up to the sides of the tiny stage to sing their more monochromatic parts, in keeping with the superhero dignity of their characters.
Sean Gannon and Cailan Orn, two remarkable dancers from Company XIV, acted out the story while Kelly sang. McCormick’s intelligent choreography stylized the physical conflict of the battle to emphasize the sexual subtext of two lovers fighting to, well, completion. During a moment when Clorinda has the upper hand in the fight, Orn stood on Gannon in her high heeled shoes (not sharp heels, but still…). She jumped in the air and he moved to force her feet to land on either side of his body, rather than on top of him; that drew a chuckle from the audience. After Tancredi dealt Clorinda the fatal blow, Gannon, wearing shoes with similar heels, walked several solid steps on top of Orn’s supine torso. What had been something of a gag the first time became a powerful, physical evocation of the violence and struggle for domination-personal and cultural, given the larger theme of the Crusades and Clorinda’s conversion-at the heart of the libretto.
This small-scale presentation of Il combattimento was meant to prime Gotham’s audience for a fully-staged production of the opera planned by the company to be performed in the cleverly appropriate Arms and Armor Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014.
A not-necessarily correct or respectful-but certainly curious and enthralled-fantasy of the Orient has been a popular operatic setting and subject since, with Monteverdi, the very beginning of opera. The Orient can imply the Levant-during the Crusades and otherwise-North Africa, Turkey, South and East Asia, and, since it’s only a fantasy anyway, North and South America (Incans, American Indians). Many of the other works performed at “Orientale” referred to several of these locations of symbolic strangeness and exoticism.
In addition to Gannon and Orn, Company XIV also featured Marisol Cabrera and Laura Careless; the four of them opened the performance dancing to the March pour le cérémonie des Turcs (March for the Turkish Ceremony) from Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) (1670) by Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to Louis XIV. Even within the context of not exactly opera, ballet/play hybrid piece created by Lully and Moli√®re, the orientalist nod to Turkey is presented as satire, showing that theatrical producers have been both recreating the glamour of the East and doing so knowingly for centuries.
There were several French vocal works set in or inspired by the European image of the East. H√∂glund and O’Connell sang the famous Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ 1883 opera Lakmé, set in India. The dancers distributed large, glowing flowers around the stage, and then lounged in voluptuous poses around the two singers. Filling in for Rivera, H√∂glund performed Georges Bizet’s art song Adieux de l’h√¥tesse arabe (Goodbyes of the Arab Hostess) (1867), which takes its text from a poem in Victor Hugo’s collection Les Orientales, centered on the Greek cause for independence from the Ottomans.
H√∂glund also began the vocal program with a Polish art song, Allah, Akbar, Allah! from Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin (1918) by Karol Szymanowski. Altman sang a German Lied, Schumann’s Aus den √∂stlichen Rosen (1840), based on a poem from Friedrich R√ºckert’s collection √ñstliche Rosen (Eastern Roses). This was one of the simplest works of the night, and Altman delivered it beautifully, with Romantic sweetness in his voice.
The last vocal piece in the program, another French work, belonged to H√∂glund. A trumpeter joined the ensemble-French baroque opera is less subtle than Monteverdi-for the final aria of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les indes galantes (The Amorous Indies). The aria, Regnez, plaisirs et jeux (Reign, Pleasures and Games), is sung by the character Zima, an American Indian princess. H√∂glund sang the ecstatic aria with charm and agility, ending on a ringing, crowd-pleasing high note. She performed with genial showmanship, surrounded by the dancers.
The theme of “Orientale” held together nicely, even through a substantial variety of formats, languages and styles. The counterpoint between the more delicate and subtle performance of the Monteverdi and the warmer, richer singing and music of, especially, the 19th century works showed off the range of the singers, the instrumentalists and the opera company itself to great effect.
There is one more performance of “Orientale” on Wednesday evening, October 3, at (Le) Poisson Rouge.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s season continues next March with another rare early baroque opera: Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, staged at The Box. In June the company will present a very recent opera: Daniel Cat√°n’s La hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter) performed in site-specific locations around New York City appropriate to the garden setting of the work.
* I was sorry to miss the opportunity to hear Jennifer Rivera sing. I am familiar with her work as an accomplished blogger and as a frequent guest on the Opera Now! Podcast, but have never heard her sing live. I hope she recovers quickly and is able to participate in Wednesday’s performance of “Orientale.”