Quality opera at Harvard is rare. With few operatic productions ever seriously undertaken throughout the year, the mesmerizing portrayal of Antonio Cesti's early baroque opera Orontea conceived by Sarah Meyers '02 and Divinity School Student Matthew Burt resembles nothing that Harvard theatre has seen in recent memory. Sponsored through the annual collective effort of the Harvard Early Music Society, the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, and the Fogg Art Museum, Orontea is far from another Harvardian rendition of some overproduced Broadway show. Beautifully flowing costumes, radiant voices and an incredibly professional sound characterize this gem.
The plot is typically Baroque-complex on the surface, yet simple underneath-and emanates hilarity over the crazy notion of irrational love. The production opens showcasing a dispute between the allegorical figures of "love" and "philosophy" over their importance to the happiness and well-being of mankind. Played by the incredibly brave and talented eleven-year old stars, Jeremy Swist and Andrew Bernard of Youth Pro Musica: The Greater Boston Youth Chorus, their adorable disposition immediately endeares the audience to what soon proves to be one of the most fulfilling nights this reviewer has experienced in a Harvard theater.
When the dispute between love and philosophy is unable to be settled, the two seek Queen Orontea's advice in the matter. As played by Georgia Walle '04, Orontea's incredibly sonorous and hypnotizing voice carries the audience (with the help of an unbelievably talented cast) through the production. Hopefully, more operatic outlets will develop within the Harvard community to showcase this rising star more frequently after this stellar performance.
The story continues with Queen Orontea swearing to stay faithful to her own freedom and never fall in love, but she soon finds this promise hard to keep. She becomes torn between the statements of her court advisor (Jesse Billett '01) who pushes her to follow reason, not passion, and the irresistible charm of her court painter (Jason McAdams, a New England Conservatory second-year Master's candidate), who is desired by every woman he encounters. Once this passion gets out of control, there is little that reason can do to reduce the chaos that ensues.
The most notable star of this talented cast, while not a student at Harvard, is undoubtedly Amanda Forsythe, another second-year master's candidate at the New England Conservatory. Obviously well trained and exceptionally talented, her resonant soprano fills the Fogg Art Museum's courtyard with vibrant chords and rich waves of passion. Music director Matthew Burt must be praised for harnessing the talents of Forsythe and others to such effect.
Using the courtyard of the Fogg Museum as the center stage of the performance is a highly integral aspect of this particular production. Not only is it an extraordinarily open and resonant space in which to hear these operatic melodies, but the style of the music and time period associated with the particular instruments and costumes of Orontea are perfectly set against the marble floors and fluted columns of the Fogg's courtyard. The upper balconies of the museum and the musicians of the orchestra are not only decorative but also incorporated into the production. Thanks to Sarah Meyers' stage direction, asides, focal scenes and orchestral interludes are not stage dependent in this amazing space. The balconies and aisles in the audience are readily incorporated into the production to give the audience a sense that they are not only watching a baroque opera but are actually transported back in time to witness this poignantly realistic portrayal of confusion, heartache and love. Even those not familiar or comfortable with opera can't help but fall in love with the exquisite choreography, vocal preparation and endearingly funny storyline of Cesti's forgotten gem, Orontea.