Staged Serenata, If Not Exactly Opera, Proved Exquisite Baroque Gem

Lauren Decker as Marc’Antonio and Kangmin Justin Kim as Cleopatra in Haymarket Opera’s production of Johann Adoph Hasse’s ‘Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra‘ (Photos by Elliott Mandel)

CHICAGO — The Haymarket Opera’s recent production of Johann Adoph Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra had everything: great tunes, great singing and playing, great sets, lighting, and costumes. All it needed was a story.

This isn’t anybody’s fault, really. Hasse and his librettist, Francesco Ricciardi, didn’t write an opera. Their 1725 work was a serenata, an evening’s entertainment representing the end of Roman general Mark Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt. Consisting of only the two characters conversing in recitatives and arias, along with a couple of duets, it would have been only semi-staged.

But Haymarket general director Chase Hopkins was determined to stage it at the company’s impressive standards. In his debut as a stage director, he made a courageous effort to transform the work into an opera, splitting it into two acts with an intermission (needed for the change of sets, which will be discussed below). The other important addition was a trio of supernumerary characters — two ladies-in-waiting for Cleopatra and a Roman soldier as Marc’Antonio’s right-hand man — who, while always silent, were kept moving with a wide range of stage business. It was still not an opera.

Cleopatra (Kangmin Justin Kim) with her ladies-in-waiting

On the other hand, members of the Music Critics Association of North America, in town for their annual meeting, got to sit in the intimate Jarvis Opera Hall at DePaul University on June 24 and experience some glorious Baroque singing. The roles of Marc’Antonio and Cleopatra had originally been gender-switched in the 1725 premiere (sung by contralto Vittoria Tesi Tramontini and soprano castrato Carlo “Farinelli” Broschi, respectively). The Haymarket Opera, at only 13 years old already becoming legendary for the attention to historical accuracy in its productions, followed suit. It is difficult to believe that Hasse himself heard these roles sung by better performers than Lauren Decker (Marc’Antonio) and Kangmin Justin Kim (Cleopatra).

The casting worked on many levels. Decker is tall and broad-shouldered and moved in a confident, masculine way; Kim, short and slight, swung from coquettish to impassioned as the libretto required. The two had believable romantic chemistry, making the artists’ genders irrelevant. And their voices were nothing short of astonishing.

Lauren Decker sang Marc’Antonio with rich, golden sound.

Hasse gave his sweetest, most lyrical melodies to Marc’Antonio, so the audience had many chances to bask in Decker’s rich, golden sound. She is an intelligent singer, shifting the coloration of her voice at cadences and modulations, always clearly aware of her harmonic surroundings. Her powerful contralto had its lowest registers tested many times and was never found wanting.

And then there’s Kim. This countertenor has a level of detailed control that is almost unheard-of in that type of voice, not to mention a stage presence so intense that even his recitatives are thrilling. The clarity of pitch never flags, even during lightning-fast improvised melismas that seemed to defy the limits of human physiognomy, not to mention the science of acoustics. Kim has taken the art of Baroque ornamentation beyond decoration and made it essential to his emotional expression. The only time Kim’s voice became shrill was after a big leap up in what amounted to a mad scene, when Cleopatra declared that she wanted to “hasten to my death in freedom” rather than become a slave.

Most of Cleopatra’s arias are fiery, and the 12-member ensemble of period instruments (strings and harpsichord), under the leadership of music director Craig Trompeter, had no trouble matching the energy of Kim’s pyrotechnics while preventing rhythmic chaos. From the strident, buzzing attacks that opened the overture to the profound calm that overtakes the lovers when they acquiesce to a suicide pact, the orchestra was as dramatically precise and nimble as the singers.

Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim has a level of detailed control that is almost unheard-of in that type of voice.

Meanwhile, Julie Brumfiel and Kali Benz, as the ladies-in-waiting, fanned their queen with ostrich feathers, served wine, and even jousted with each other in a ritualized dance; Jon Beal, fight choreographer, also played the soldier. Their actions seemed to encourage Cleopatra’s romance with the handsome general, while Beal’s character was focused on protecting his master from the wild Cleopatra. Hopkins made sure their motions were appropriately stylized yet meaningful. All three of them drank poison at the end along with their employers, courteously dying first so the stars could hang on until the end of their final duet.

This Hamlet-like pile of bodies was inspired by depictions of Cleopatra from the 18th century. In a panel discussion before the performance, set designer and painter Wendy Waszut-Barrett made a point of how she focused on the way Hasse’s contemporaries would have understood ancient Egypt, not how it is understood today. Waszut-Barrett is an expert in historical set-making. As she has done with previous Haymarket productions, she painted the sets with thin layers of hide-glue paint on muslin, which is completely matte and unreflective, unlike any modern paint. As a result, the flat wooden pieces take on an interior glow from the lights, which Waszut-Barrett refers to as the “scenic illusion of depth.”

A scene from Haymarket Opera’s production of Johann Adoph Hasse’s ‘Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra

The long intermission was needed to change out the colorful set from Act 1 for purple-gray columns and flickering braziers. What started Act 2 as a somber interior chamber shrank by the end to a doleful tomb, thanks to the skillful lighting of Brian Schneider. Each character wore one costume throughout the opera, exquisitely designed by Stephanie Cluggish and enhanced by Megan Pirtle’s wigs.

There was a lot to love in this production, even if it wasn’t quite an opera. It also represented an important first for Chicago: not only the premiere production of this work, but (according to Hopkins) the first time any Hasse has been performed in the Windy City.

A live recording of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra will be broadcast on radio station WFMT on Nov. 18. Next up for the Haymarket is Francesca Caccini’s 1625 opera (a real one) La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina), running Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. For tickets and information, go here.