Sexy Comic Opera, 350 Years Young, In Spoleto Revival

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Veremonda (Vivica Genaux) gathers her Amazonian warriors in the Spoleto Festival’s production of Cavalli’s 'Veremonda.'  (Julia Lynn Photography)
Veremonda (Vivica Genaux) gathers her Amazonian warriors in the Spoleto Festival production of Cavalli’s ‘Veremonda.’
(Production photos by Julia Lynn Photography)
By Paul Hyde

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Spoleto Festival USA production of Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, said to be the first for this 1652 comic opera in 350 years, is sexy, funny, deftly acted, and splendidly sung. The creative team, which includes conductor Aaron Carpenè, performs more than a little alchemy in making the production soar in Charleston’s intimate Dock Street Theatre.

Zeriffo (Brian Downen), left, assists Delio (Raffaele Pe) in amorous escapades.
Zeriffo (Brian Downen) assists Delio (Raffaele Pe) in amorous flights.

Cavalli’s score is tripping and pleasant but rarely more than that. The opera, centering on romantic intrigue amid Spanish and Moorish wars, features long stretches of serviceable recitative enlivened by relatively short arias. There’s little of the vocal pyrotechnics that characterize the later Baroque operas of Handel and Vivaldi.

But what Cavalli’s music lacks in consistent appeal is made up for by Giulio Strozzi’s spicy libretto and sparkling production values: Stefano Vizioli’s buoyant direction and Ugo Nespolo’s playful, colorful pop-art sets.

Veremonda, L’Amazzone Di Aragona (Veremonda, the Amazon of Aragona) takes place on Gibraltar. The Spanish Queen Veremonda, sung by the wonderful Vivica Genaux, is frustrated about the lack of progress in the war against the Moors. What’s to account for the delay? King Alfonso is distracted by his scientific studies. The Spanish general Delio, meanwhile, is having a secret affair with the Moorish queen, Zelemina.

The strong-willed Veremonda resolves to lead the combat against a Moorish fort herself. She orders the women of the court to abandon their usual pursuits and form an Amazonian army. (For history buffs, the opera is based on the conquering of Granada, of which Gibraltar is part, by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.)

Delio (Pe) pretends to threaten Veremonda (Genaux) as Zaida (Michael Maniaci) and Zelemina (Francesca Lombardi  Mazzulli) spy on the two.
Delio pretends to threaten Veremonda as Zaida and Zelemina spy on the two.

Veremonda, with long stretches of sung dialogue, is an actor’s opera. Vizioli’s detailed staging is filled with comic hijinks and romantic tussles. The libretto has serious and comic elements, but the former are overshadowed by Vizioli’s ebullient direction, embraced with zest by the superb cast.

Genaux, an Alaska native known for her interpretation of Baroque roles, sang with a rich, beautiful mezzo-soprano. She negotiated ornamental passages with nimble artistry. She was also a commanding presence, whether dressed as the queen early in the opera or, later, in Amazonian garb, ready for battle — of both the martial and romantic sort.

Italian countertenor Raffaele Pe exhibited a mellifluous tone, elegant phrasing, and adroit acting chops as the vain Spanish general Delio, who loves Zelemina but also hopes to seduce Veremonda. The comic coupling of Veremonda and Delio in Act 2 is simultaneously steamy and the stuff of high farce.

Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, as Zelemina, offered a radiant, silvery soprano. She sang Zelemina’s plea for mercy near the end of the opera exquisitely. Céline Ricci was a delight as Vespina, a petite member of Veremonda’s army who nevertheless possesses a sizable, lustrous mezzo-soprano.

Delio (Raffaele Pe) is the secret lover of Zelemina (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli).
Delio (Pe) is secret lover of Zelemina (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli).

Ricci and Veremonda’s six other leggy Amazons bring considerable sex appeal to the proceedings. Nespolo has costumed the women warriors, who dance but don’t sing (with the exception of Vespina) in the sort of skimpy costumes you might find in a Rockettes’ skit. Though gorgeous and formidable in appearance, the Amazons cringe at the prospect of war.

It was great to see the versatile tenor Steven Cole in the comic role of the cartwheeling Don Buscone. Brian Downen played the role of Vespina’s love interest Zeriffo with a ringing lyric tenor.

Other fine contributions were provided by Joseph Barron, Jason Budd, Andrey Nemzer, and Danielle Talamantes. Michael Maniaci, a countertenor noted for singing well into the soprano range, was indisposed on opening night and had to complete the role of Zaida in a whisper.

Carpenè, an Australian early-music specialist based in Rome, conducted the New York Baroque Incorporated ensemble, which plays period instruments. Except for a wayward pitch or two, the orchestra of about a dozen was clean, precise, and transparent on opening night.

Carpenè could be called the real hero of the opera. He was responsible for most of the musical archaeology that resulted in this first-ever performance of Veremonda in America. The opera premiered in Venice in 1652 during Carnival season and later that same year was performed in Naples. It has not been heard since.

Tenor Steven Cole plays the comic role of Don Buscone.
Tenor Steven Cole plays the comic role of Don Buscone.

Commissioned by the Spoleto Festival, Carpenè spent much of two years writing the vocal and orchestral scores based on Cavalli’s original manuscript. It was no easy task: Cavalli’s handwriting is notoriously messy and his score is riddled with cross-outs, erasures, and glued-in pieces of paper with alternative words and music, according to Cavalli expert Wendy Heller, who wrote an introduction to the opera for the Spoleto Festival program. Carpenè used passages from both the Venice and Naples librettos, which differ in some respects. In addition, much of the musical manuscript features only a bass line and vocal parts. Musicians in Cavalli’s day would improvise based on that bass line.

The colorful orchestration devised by Carpenè includes two violins, two recorders, one viola da gamba, one violone, two lutes, two baroque guitars, two theorbos, a chamber organ, and two harpsichords. Several percussion instruments — castanets, zills, and cevgen (also known as the jingling johnny) — capture the opera’s Spanish flavor.

Carpenè has pointed out that, in many ways, Veremonda is more modern than, say, Verdi’s La Traviata. Cavalli’s opera touches on Christian/Muslim conflict, gender equality (with Veremonda taking charge of the battle), and sexual ambiguity and gay themes (the Moorish queen falls for the disguised-as-a-man Veremonda, while a Moorish guard has his eye on both Delio and the disguised Veremonda).

Vivica Genaux sings the title role in the Spoleto Festival production.
Vivica Genaux sings the title role in the Spoleto Festival production.

Apparently, Venetians relished these gender and sexual themes, particularly during Carnival season. The fact that these issues continue to fascinate us today makes Veremonda all the more ripe for revival during Charleston’s own version of an arts carnival: the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

Three performances remain of this charming opera: May 30, and June 2 and 5. For tickets, call 843-579-3100 or see the festival’s website.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News and a board member of the Music Critics Association of North America. He may be reached at phyde@greenvillenews.com. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.