More Than Words

The Triumph of Camilla revitalizes Baroque gesture

With a little imagination, it could have been an Italian palazzo. The charms of a Renaissance courtyard, a dovecote of partridges, a meadow with trees and a pergola near the meadow set the scene for a recent rehearsal of Harvard’s latest opera: The Triumph of Camilla. In the waxing moonlight, two forlorn lovers articulate the pathos of despair in C sharps and high G’s. As a disheartened mezzo soprano appeals to the moon, arms extended, her gestures border parody. Pfhorzheimer House’s Comstock room never saw so much action.

Several feet in front of the actors, director Jennifer Griesbach, periodically interrupts the scene rehearsal to encourage even more exadgerrated gestures from her cast.

“Square hips; your body should communicate queenly charms,” Griesbach urges.

Reminiscent of a silent film star’s melodrama and penchant for exaggeration, Griesbach’s blocking pays homage to Baroque acting techniques. Baroque gesture acting—a technique composed of bold gestures corresponding to the action of the text—is not in common practice these days. It is an art that relies on text rather than the emotions of an actor to provoke a response from the spectator. Gestures of address and decrees of love or war are expressed in a highly stylized way. “It’s difficult to teach baroque gesture acting in [the three weeks we rehearsed together],” says Griesbach, a professional opera director and co-founder of a Baroque opera company. “Therefore, what I’ve tried to do with the choreography is to use elements of Baroque opera to give people an idea of the genre.”

This week, Harvard’s Early Music Society will attempt to resuscitate the art of Baroque opera with its presentation of The Triumph of Camilla. Harvard’s production will mark the show’s Boston premiere and its third appearance in North America. 12 students from Harvard, Boston University and the New England Conservatory of Music comprise the cast, and they are accompanied by eight strings, two harpsichords and a small organ.

The opera, probably first performed for Queen Anne’s birthday, made its London debut in 1706. The plot concerns Camilla, the rightful queen of the Volscians, and is a sexy tale of usurpation, mistaken identities, love, war and imprisonment. Sung in English and replete with what Griesbach deems “conspicuous melodies,” Camilla became the second most popular opera in eighteenth-century England, trailing only the Beggar’s Opera. Neil F. Davidson ’03, president of the Early Music Society and producer of Camilla, maintains that the opera’s appeal has not diminished over time.

“We try to reach out to those who may not have ever seen an opera,” Davidson says. “The genre is admittedly obscure but The Triumph of Camilla plays well to modern audiences with obvious melodies, plots are fun and intricate and always end with revelation. It is a totally satisfying experience.”

Indeed, the opera is sure to be at least a satisfying experience considering that it not only boasts the talents of Griesbach’s direction but also Ken Pierce’s choreography. Pierce, who last year directed the Early Music Society’s rendition of Giasone, is a professional choreographer regarded as one of the most famous professionals of Baroque dance. Three professional dancers studying in his studio will make an appearance in Camilla. What is more, the opera will be performed in the courtyard space of the Fogg Museum. Modelled on the interior of a Tuscan church in Montepulciano, the intimate interior space will be lit by soft candlelit and complement the aesthetic experience of an opera designed to be performed in a royal apartment before aristocracy.

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