CHICAGO — When the Chicago-based Haymarket Opera Company presented its first production in 2011, it was a fringe company trying to buck multiple challenges. For starters, it had to compete for audiences in a city that already had the world-class Lyric Opera of Chicago and the now-50-year-old Chicago Opera Theater, which emphasizes modern and contemporary repertoire. Perhaps more important, it had to sell audiences on a concept that only a couple other North-American companies pursue: the presentation of 17th- and 18th-century operas with both period instruments and period staging.
It might seem like a recipe for failure, but founder and artistic director Craig Trompeter and the team he assembled were undaunted. They steadily and carefully built the organization, offering modest productions at first but ones that were solidly researched, musically rich, theatrically compelling, and often just plain fun. The formula worked. Twelve years later, the company is a thriving member of the Chicago classical scene and has gained national and even international recognition. In May, for example, BBC Music Magazine chose the company’s world-premiere recording of Joseph Bologne’s L’Amant Anonyme as its opera of the month and gave it five stars. Heady stuff.
Haymarket Opera was back in action Sept. 28-Oct. 1 with a delightful, sold-out production that displayed many of the qualities that gained it success, starting with Trompeter’s knack for unearthing operas that have been under-appreciated and even forgotten. That was certainly the case here with the company’s presentation of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, which debuted in February 1625 at the Villa di Poggio Imperiale in Florence. Though not as obscure as some of Haymarket’s offerings, considering that it has been presented sporadically in recent decades, including a 2018 production by the Boston Early Music Festival, it is hardly well known either.
What makes this work so special is that it is considered to be the oldest opera written by a woman — Francesca Caccini. The classical world’s heightened focus in recent years on equity and inclusion has led to a fervent effort to rediscover and reevaluate women composers, who for centuries were largely written out of the genre’s history. Much of the attention has focused on creators from the 19th and 20th centuries, but as this more-than-worthy work makes very clear, there were women at work in earlier eras as well. Caccini (1587-after 1641) was a singer, lutenist, poet, and music teacher, but she is best remembered as a composer, though La liberazione di Ruggiero is the only one of her stage works that has survived in full.
The 90-minute opera follows a basic story in which Ruggiero, a soldier, has fallen under the spell of the evil Alcina and become essentially emasculated. Melissa, the estranged sister of Alcina, who is a good and even more powerful sorceress, has vowed to aid Alcina following the pleas of Ruggiero’s betrothed. She travels to Alcina’s island and, taking the form of his teacher, Atlas, manages to free him of Alcina’s spell. In the end, there is a confrontation between the two sisters, with good inevitably triumphing over evil, as Melissa also frees several people on the island who had been turned into plants by Alcina.
That this opera is proto-feminist is no coincidence. It was commissioned by Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena, widow of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, one of two female family members serving as regents or leaders until Cosimo’s young son was old enough to rule. As a fascinating essay in the program by Kelley Harness, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Minnesota, makes clear, Maria Magdalena initiated a string of commissions featuring heroic female protagonists. She also had images of female sovereigns and saints portrayed in frescoes in the audience room in her villa.
Staging this production was Sarah Edgar, a Haymarket regular who understands the Baroque aesthetic. Unlike many contemporary directors, she did not try to impose some kind of “concept” onto this opera. Instead, she simply, directly, and one might even say modestly conveyed the story while staying very much within the gestural and theatrical norms of the time. The result was a highly stylized look and feel that is far from naturalism, but it didn’t take long for the audience to buy into it and get absorbed in the action. Although much of what happens is fantastical and sometimes even a bit absurd, Edgar took it all quite seriously and therefore the audience took it seriously even as it laughed at the well-coordinated comic bits.
The stylization so important to this production was very much reflected in the sets designed by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, who specializes in just this kind of work as founder and president of the Minnesota-based Historic Stage Services. The action took place in a kind of theater within a theater — a compact, Baroque-style stage with footlights and an ornate rear panel adorned with faux decorative reliefs and two inset murals depicting idyllic landscapes. In the middle was a tiny proscenium just eight feet wide and eight-and-a-half feet tall, and its principal purpose was to display the deliberately low-tech rolled drops, sliding panels, and wave machines, all meant to evoke the magical world of the opera. Perfectly complementing Waszut-Barrett’s sets and enhancing the overall sense of fantasy were the elaborate, flowing and sometimes unabashedly over-the-top period costumes by Stephanie Cluggish, a Chicago-based designer.
As often is the case with Haymarket, Trompeter put together a group of singers for La liberazione di Ruggiero who might not exactly be big names but are capable, communicative artists who understand the Baroque singing style and are comfortable with the theatrical stylizations of the period. The production’s clear star was French mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux, who reveled in Alcina’s villainy with a deliciously preening, self-satisfied portrayal. The versatile singer seemed at ease with Caccini’s music, with subtle phrasing that expressively capitalized on the music’s innate ebbs and flows.
Scott J. Brunscheen, a technically sound singer with an agile, soft-edged tenor voice, aptly conveyed Ruggiero’s dazed, lost demeanor during the early part of the opera as well as the character’s startling transformation when he powerfully defies Alcina after being rescued. Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger had some persuasive moments as Melissa, but it was hard not to wish that she had brought a bit more vocal and dramatic heft and punch to the character, considering that Melissa is the most powerful character in the story.
A big boon to the Haymarket Opera Company has been the opening of the Jarvis Opera Hall at DePaul University, which is part of the $98-million Holtschneider Performance Hall that opened in 2018. A repurposed concert hall in what was originally a church, the beautiful 160-seat facility offers an intimacy that is perfectly suited to the chamber scale of Haymarket’s productions. Although it has certain unfortunate theatrical limitations, including no fly space and minimal offstage space (no doubt the reason it is called an opera hall and not an opera theater), it makes up for those shortcomings with an ample orchestra pit and superb acoustics that deliver a big, enveloping, full-bodied sound and an ideal balance between singers and musicians.
Influenced by Claudio Monteverdi, among others, Caccini was among the composers who began writing at the close of the Renaissance and helped usher in the Baroque era. Though perhaps not the innovator that Monteverdi was, she showed herself to be a highly skilled and expressive composer, using recitative to convey much of the drama in this work, often with just an archlute or harpsichord providing continuo accompaniment, but also sculpting compelling, well-integrated choruses along the way. She had a strong, adventurous sense of harmony, but what really stood out here were her vivid orchestrations, especially her use of two recorders (nicely played by Lisette Kielson and Patrick O’Malley) and a rare quartet of sackbuts at pivotal moments to enhance and punctuate the storytelling. The sackbut is an early trombone with a more contained, organic, and caramel-like sound than its contemporary equivalent. Playing the instrument with aplomb in this production were four members of the Newberry Consort, a Chicago early-music ensemble — artistic director Liza Malamut, Ben David Aronson, Paul Von Hoff, and Garrett Lahr.
Indeed, the best part of this production might have been just basking in the stunning playing of the Haymarket pit orchestra, with all its wonderfully eclectic period instruments. Trompeter conducted from the harpsichord (taking turns with Jason Moy, who also played organ) and played tenor viol. While Trompeter seemed a bit tentative leading Haymarket’s first productions more than a decade ago, he has developed into a confident, incisive opera conductor who knows how to sensitively support the singers and propel the action. But as concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike was quick to point out in an email response to a question, it’s also true that much of this production was performed without need of conducting, with singers and musicians performing chamber style, feeling and breathing this engrossing music together.