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“Una donna, due uomini.” Italian for “one woman, two men,” this timeless dramatic formula of the calamitous, star-crossed love-triangle has inspired almost every classic opera in the grand tradition—from “Manon Lescaut” and “Eugene Onegin” to “Carmen” and “Tosca.” But its tradition dates back to the early 17th century, when Francesco Cavalli composed “L’Ormindo,” one of the earliest operas still surviving today.
“L’Ormindo”—presented last weekend at the New College Theatre by the Harvard Early Music Society—was first performed in Venice in 1644. As a production, it may seem unfamiliar to even the most ardent opera-goer, and a revival of an obscure non-blockbuster can’t avoid a certain degree of controversy and skepticism. Yet, it springs from a seminal period in operatic history, and its synopsis is guaranteed to satisfy a tradition-seeking audience. Opera companies are bolder in mounting productions of lesser-known operas from the early 17th and early 18th centuries, like those of Monteverdi and Handel, but performances of works from the mid-to-late 1600s are rare. Thus, the ambition of the HEMS in selecting this somewhat hazardous reprisal is all the more admirable, but it also subjects itself to an intense test of finesse and intelligence. The uniqueness of its subject and the lack of sufficient previous efforts with which to compare it make judgment difficult. Even with these obstacles, though, it was obvious that the production’s attempts at achieving authentic style and presentation—elements that should have served to make it extraordinary—were actually its greatest weaknesses.
A romantic but comic farce, “L’Ormindo” has a positively Baroque plot, given its impossibly intricate mixture of lovers, rulers, and clairvoyants. It involves two Moroccan princes—Ormindo and Amida—who are in love with the same beautiful woman, Erisbe (who is, of course, unavailable, having married an ancient, wealthy and powerful monarch). The young queen and her two suitors are backed by a cast that includes three Egyptian fortune-tellers, a page, a lady-in-waiting, and a king, all of whom sing lengthy solo arias and pose and mime animatedly. This is meant to be very much in tune with the Baroque style, which suggests the way deep emotion arises out of formal gesture.
Performance in the very idiosyncratic vein of “Baroque” was in fact the subject of a master-class hosted at the NCT last week. Soprano Ellen Hargis worked with six members of the cast of “L’Ormindo” to demonstrate the importance of performance gestures in interpreting arias and recitatives. In a Baroque opera, gestures are instrumental in communicating feeling. This stylization is understandably difficult to grasp, and resulted in artifice; the poses were affected rather than affecting.
As Erisbe, Felicia Plunkett could not manage smooth transitions from comedy to farcical complexity to sobriety, allowing inappropriate smirks to marr her beautiful, lyric soprano. It can’t be easy, though, to betray three men simultaneously in the show’s first hour and emerge as a paragon of fidelity in the second one. She didn’t have an excellent romantic figure to work with in Jay Smith’s Ormindo, whose alto—bordering on soprano—was at first a bit disconcerting.
James B. Onstad ’10 seemed to understand Baroque pantomime better than the rest, delivering both comedy and drama at exactly the right moments. Another standout was Julia S. Cavallaro ’08 as Mirinda, Erisbe’s lady-in-waiting. Cavalli seemed to bring out the riches in both of their voices, unsurprisingly, as it is commonly held that Baroque opera encourages young, unstrained, and facile singing. The orchestra consisted of authentically Baroque instruments like the theorbo, the archlute, and the violoncello.
“L’Ormindo” is a lovely two-hour entertainment for any lover of the Italian language. It delivers, amidst the superfluity, beautiful lines like “Lui che è saggio ama ogni modo” (“He who is wise loves every which way”), and provides the perfect escape into la lingua d’amore.
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