Composer Whitney George’s opera One Night of Excess premiered on March 8th at The National Sawdust, one of New York City’s premiere venues for new music. The production was co-presented by George’s ensemble, The Curiosity Cabinet, and Opera on Tap. The opera was an overall success, and captured the sensual nature of Gamiani, the plot’s source material. Published in 1833, Gamiani, a novel attributed to Alfred de Musset, created a furor when it was first released and became an erotic bestseller before disappearing into relative obscurity.
The story of the opera concerns three characters: the voyeuristic Baron, the naive Sophie, and Countess Gamiani, the eponymous heroine of Musset’s novel and George’s opera. The opera begins at one of Gamiani’s parties. From there, the drama unfolds as the Baron voyeuristically watches Gamiani from his window as she seduces Sophie. The Baron makes his presence known to them and enters the bedroom. Gamiani and Sophie share horrific and debaucherous stories of rape and masturbation. The Baron then shares his story of sexual ecstasy. Then, all three make love with a religious fervor. Then, the Baron takes Sophie to his house to make love. Gamiani comes behind them and confronts her over the Baron. The Baron, in a moment of lust, proclaims Gamiani to be a sorceress. This makes the Baron convinced that Sophie is only true to Gamiani, and he smothers her to death. Gamiani enters and proclaims the Baron committed this sin, "in the name of love."
The opera is cast into 13 scenes that make a cohesive whole thanks to George’s consistent harmonic and rhythmic style. Her textures are well orchestrated, and the sparse accompaniments throughout many scenes allowed for the singers’ words to come across in a clear manner. Johnny Call’s libretto was full of simple language that clearly communicated the story. Much of George’s music evoked Shostakovich, the tango, and musical theater. The highlights of the work were the Baron’s Tango and the finale. Both sections effectively portrayed the psychology of the Baron, and explored the trance-like ecstasy that Gamiani induced on him when he watched her. These moments of excess were musically contrasted with lithe textures that provided dramatic momentum which carried the piece forward.
I found George’s setting of the text to be entirely unexpected. A story where erotic elements abound would immediately call to mind the excesses of the fin de siècle and the music of Richard Strauss. However, the lack of any musical excess and the sparse textures of George’s accompaniments created a wholly unique and different viewpoint of the story. This was directly correlated to the loud and refreshing feminist message of the work. An example of this message was the casting of three sopranos.
The roles of the Baron, Sophie, and Gamiani were portrayed by sopranos Joy Jones, Sara Noble, and Heather Michele Meyer, respectively. The composer’s choice to make the Baron a trouser role made much sense because it paid homage to the historical characters that inspired the novel. Countess Gamiani was reportedly based on the French novelist George Sand. George’s decision to write the role of the Baron for soprano was an acknowledgement of Sand’s cross dressing, which she did throughout her life for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, the decision to make the Baron a breeches role effectively blurred the lines of the gender binary and made the gender of the Baron sexually ambiguous despite the usage of ‘he’ and ‘him’ pronouns.
Of the three sopranos, Joy Jones was the stand out. Her vocal prowess was directly linked to her dramatic portrayal of the Baron and all of his sexual pleasures. Her use of parlando for dramatic effect was well done and tastefully executed, and her interpretation of the “Baron’s Tango” was sultry and full of excess in a most delightful way.
George conducted her ensemble from the podium, and elegantly led the musicians through the score with great aplomb. Each musician took off an article of clothing at the end of each scene until they were almost nude at the end of the opera. This stage direction complimented the sultriness of the stage action amongst the trio of lovers. Daniel Fay’s understated production allowed for George’s music to take front and center. George’s narration at the beginning and combination of dance forms with arioso-like scenes created a thoroughly engrossing theatrical work.
NIGHT TWO: a review of Cantanti PROJECT’s production of Handel's Orlando on 02/19/17 by Jeremy Hirsch, Opera Critic of 'The Entertainment Hour'
On Sunday 19 February, Cananti Poject presented its second of two sold-out performances of Handel’s Orlando in Marc A. Scorca Hall at The National Opera Center. Cantati Project is a non-profit founded three years ago by Joyce Yin, Sam Fujii, and Laura Mitchell. The company is run for singers by singers, with a mission of creating an arena for developing performers, creators, and members of the musical community at large.
Orlando is one of three opera libretti adapted from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso that Handel set to music. Here’s the basic plot: Orlando has just returned victoriously from battle, and now wants both love and glory. Orlando’s former lover Angelica recently rescued the warrior Medoro and the two are in love. Angelica’s sidekick Dorinda, also in love with Medoro, is stuck third-wheeling. The sorcerer Zoroastro watches over the action occasionally interfering to keep peace and espouse morals. Medoro and Angelica plan to elope to escape a potentially jealous Orlando. Dorinda, sad that Medoro will never be hers, accidently reveals the lovers’ plan to Orlando. He goes nuts for two acts, finally killing Medoro and Angelica in a psychotic rage. As he’s about to kill himself, he learns from Zoroastro that, thanks to the sorcerer’s protective magic, everyone he supposedly killed is safe. Relieved of his guilt and psychosis, Orlando gives Angelica and Medoro’s relationship his blessing. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the piece ends.
In Cantanti Project’s production, director Brittany Goodwin sets the action in a mental hospital staffed by Dr. Zoroastro and an unnamed nurse. The rest of the characters are patients suffering from mental illness. The varieties and degrees of the characters’ mental illness engenders a power structure in the asylum that enables a murky moral landscape. Orlando and Dorinda suffer from the strongest symptoms and so are most easily manipulated at the hands of the more lucid Angelica and Medoro. Angelica and Medoro garner little sympathy taking advantage of the others’ illness for personal gain.
Thanks to the characters’ precarious mental states, plot points can occur in their delusional imaginations instead of in the real world. Orlando hallucinates rescuing and falling in love with the beautiful Isabella (in the libretto this is a real event). Jealous Angelica demands Orlando’s loyalty though she knows Isabella is a figment of his imagination. Angelica doubles down on her cynicism acting out of narcissistic envy and preying on the delusions of an ill and helpless man to get her way.
The setting alters the moral implications of Angelica and Medoro’s escape plan. Because the two are long-term mental patients watched closely by the staff doctor, leaving is a fantastical game not a real-life scenario. Yet the couple takes pains to convince Dorinda they’re leaving for good, breaking innocent Dorinda’s heart. Angelica and Medoro don’t leave, no one can leave, yet they manage to abandon their friend in the process of imagining leaving. By the opera’s end, few characters are better off than how they began; a welcomed antidote to the deus ex machina of the original libretto.
Mezzo-soprano Kimberly Hann as the title character convincingly maintained an appropriately troubled countenance for the duration of the piece. Her Orlando was multi-dimensional, psychotic yet gullibly innocent. He became a genuine victim of his condition. Ms. Hann possesses a pleasantly dark mezzo-soprano voice. Her coloratura came alive in her arias’ da capo sections channeling Orlando’s well-deserved fury into fitting ornamentation.
Mezzo-soprano Kirsti Esch played Zoroastro as a negligent doctor that substitutes sedatives for competence. Women frequently play men in Handel opera, however, a woman playing Zoroastro is unprecedented, the role written for bass or bass-baritone voice. There’s no gender-based reason Zoroastro must be sung by a man. However, Handel’s music was diminished by the voice-type mismatch, if only because Zoroastro is written expertly to flatter the registers of the bass voice.
Soprano Marisa Karchin played a charming but morally bankrupt Angelica. Her voice radiated youth and her aura on stage was both confident and self-effacing. One hoped for a glimpse of menace or a clue to her motivations as the opera wore on. Angelica had more manipulative personality than Ms. Karchin seemed able bring.
Angelica’s lover Medoro was played sympathetically by mezzo-soprano Allison Gish. Her Medoro was more comforting than conniving, showing genuine compassion for Dorinda. Ms. Gish’s voice warmed up in the da capo of her first aria and maintained a solid core throughout the evening. Her coloratura was agile and stylish and like Ms. Hann’s shined most in the da capo sections of her arias.
The standout of the evening was soprano Joyce Yin, who skirted the pitfalls of the potentially pitiful Dorinda, never losing her essential optimism and cheer while erecting a captivating character arch. The audience meets Dorinda with sock puppets on both hands: her closest confidants. It turns out the puppets also cover a bandage hiding self-inflicted cutting scars revealing a darkness in the character never overtly shown during the drama. Beaten but not broken, Ms. Yin’s Dorinda triumphs through humor and force of will to realize that she is worthy of love and respect and will settle for no less.
Ms. Yin’s deft characterization was matched by her fearless singing, particularly in her aria “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti” that begins act II. Handling the exposed coloratura with delicacy and grace, Ms. Yin managed her light soprano expertly. Her act III aria “Amor e qual vento” showed Dorinda in her full capacity. With Despina-like cleverness tempered by a genuine nature and newfound moral acuity, Ms. Yin’s Dorinda triumphed over timidity and pity, with her final cadenza launching her into her newly realized life.
The Cantanti Project teamed up with the Dorian Baroque Orchestra, a group that debuted in 2012 and consists of two violins, viola, cello, and harpsichord with Dylan Sauerwald conducting from the harpsichord. Having a dedicated baroque orchestra is a gift for this music, adding a degree of authenticity to the sound world that a conventional chamber group might not achieve. There were definite moments of musical uncertainty. Pacing-wise the momentum tended to drag during slower arias and accompanied recitatives; a dangerous formula for a potentially repetitive style of opera. However, it was clear that Mr. Sauerwald made a stylistic mark on the production, the singers uniformly sensitive to the rhetorical phrasing essential to Handel opera. In good humor, the band joined in a cute post-intermission bit of comedy. As the band tuned, Dorinda entered covering her ears disturbed by the din, eventually using all the resources she could muster to quiet them.
The production was laced with subtle comedic moments and tasty dramatic turns. Though the action came close to a stand-still towards the end of the second act, the piece generally progressed at an engaging clip with suitable cuts that allowed the da capo arias to remain intact benefitting both the singers and the drama. The production is intriguing enough to keep developing. One would hope to see a new and improved iteration in the future.
NIGHT ONE: a review of Cantanti PROJECT’s production of Handel's Orlando on 02/18/17 by Felix Jarrar, Opera Critic of 'The Entertainment Hour'
Cantanti PROJECT’s production of George Frideric Handel’s opera seria, Orlando, opened at the National Opera Center on February 18th, 2017, at Marc A. Scorca Hall. The opera, which premiered in 1733, is based on the 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. The poem also served as the source for the libretti of two other operas by the composer, Alcina and Ariodante (1735). Cantanti PROJECT is in its third season, and fittingly enough, the production of Orlando follows their presentation of Alcina last season. Orlando is considered to be one of Handel’s greatest operas, and, of the three works he wrote based on Orlando Furioso, it is arguably the most significant.
The story of the opera Orlando concerns the eponymous war hero of Charlemagne (portrayed by counter-tenor Juecheng Chen), his unrequited love for Queen Angelica of Catay (portrayed by soprano Rachel Duval), and Queen Angelica’s love of Prince Medoro, an African Prince (portrayed by mezzo-soprano Laura Mitchell). The love triangle unravels when Orlando discovers Angelica and Medoro’s relationship. This discovery leads him to enter a scene of madness in his aria, “Ah Stigie larve… Vaghe Pupille”. This aria, which comes at the end of Act II, is the focal point of the opera’s drama and is its greatest, most innovative number. “Ah Stigie larve” breaks away from the florid coloratura usually associated with the musical style of Handel and opera seria. Handel’s rejection of the da capo aria and its rigid ABA form, which serves as the structural basis for all other arias in the opera, allows him to write remarkable music that utilizes masterful counterpoint, sighing chromatic lines, and various meters (one section of the aria is in 5/4) which poignantly express Orlando’s state of mind. “Ah Stigie larve” is the centerpiece of the opera and Brittany Goodwin’s innovative production.
Goodwin has broken with tradition and staged the opera in a mental institution. While a 2007 Zurich production of Orlando took place in a post-World War I mental institution, she did not set an exact time or place for the mental institution in her production. This allowed audiences to look at the institution as an otherworldly place, which is in line with the themes of chivalry and magic that are prevalent in the epic poem by Ludivico Ariosto. Jóhanna Ásgeirsdóttir’s set design complimented Goodwin’s aesthetic. The production featured Zoroastro (portrayed by mezzo-soprano Kristi Esch in a role that was originally written for a bass) as the doctor in the asylum. The setting also justified the opera’s ridiculous plot and added an aura of humor that directly engaged the audience during moments where it was least expected. One example of such humor came right after the end of Act I. While the orchestra, Dorian Baroque (led by music director Dylan Sauerwald from the harpsichord), tunes, Dorinda (portrayed by Lydia Dahling) covers her ears because she is perturbed by the sound. Dorinda, a shepherdess who is in love with Prince Medoro, has her hands covered with sock puppets in this production to hide the scars on her wrists from cutting. Goodwin’s brilliant staging foreshadows Orlando’s descent into madness at the end of Act II and captures the audience’s attention.
In Goodwin’s staging of “Ah Stigie larve”, the various themes of mental illness, love, and chivalry all come together as characters in the opera surround Orlando while he sings. They silently move across the stage like phantasmic pantomimes that fleet in and out of his mind. Themes in the opera’s story and tropes from epic poetry were interwoven into a complex dramatic presentation of one of Handel’s greatest arias. This scene was one of those rare moments in theater where brilliant music and great directing worked together to create sublime operatic magic. Orlando’s release from the institution after he enters out of his state of madness at the end of Act III was supremely effective and provided a satisfying conclusion to the opera.
The cast of Saturday’s performance was in fine voice. All the singers demonstrated a good understanding of the musical style, in no small part thanks to Dylan Sauerwald. He individually coached these singers during production rehearsals, and his work was clear in the casts’ tasteful ornamentation during the da capo arias. The judicious cuts to the score allowed the musical drama to flow and not stagnate. Soprano Rachel Duval undeniably stole the show as Princess Angelica with her powerful voice and effective coloratura. She gave a vocal performance that showcased her excellent technique and breath control, which, combined with her acting, gave the character a fantastic royal presence that outshined the rest of the Saturday evening’s cast.
The production of Orlando was a refreshing take on Handel’s masterpiece because the performance played on tropes of epic poetry and mental illness with charming wit and a good adherence to Baroque vocal performance practices. I look forward to seeing what the future has in store for Cantanti PROJECT and all artists that were involved in the production.
Felix Jarrar is a composer and pianist that is currently based in Brooklyn.