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U.S. premieres uncover roots of opera's past


Gods, demi-gods and heroes of antiquity kicked up a storm over the weekend, thanks to a rare double-dose of opera history.

Ignoti Dei Opera, the adventuresome company founded a few years ago by Peabody alum Timothy Nelson to explore works from opera's early years, presented the U.S. stage premiere of Francesco Cavalli's La Didone from 1641.

And Wolf Trap Opera, one of the country's leading developers of emerging artists, gave the U.S. premiere of Georg Philipp Telemann's Orpheus from 1726 in a production that, fortunately, still has a couple more performances.

Both ventures offered a welcome opportunity to reconnect with the roots of the operatic art - lots of recitative, the earthy sound of period instruments and convoluted stories drawn from mythology or ancient history.

Cavalli's version of the love between Dido and Aeneas, played out against grand conflicts involving Troy and Greece, takes aim at the inhumanity of man. The first act's focus on the horrors of war chalks up quite a body count. But unlike operas by Purcell and Berlioz on the same subject, Didone ends happily, thanks to a little deus ex machina assistance.

To modern ears (and backsides), this opera presents a challenge - more than three hours of mostly slow-paced music. The Ignoti Dei staging did not exactly prevent the work from being a long sit, but it had enough visual and theatrical action to make for a satisfying experience Saturday night at American University's Greenberg Theatre in Washington.

The production, directed and, with Ken Millionie, designed by Nelson, placed characters in contemporary dress. Enea (Aeneas) wore camouflage pants, for example, while the goddess Venus favored a red gown and, when going incognito, sunglasses. A minimal set made effective use of diaphanous curtains.

The darkness in the story was underlined, nowhere more tellingly than when a marauding Greek soldier not only killed Trojans with glee, but licked blood off his knife and was himself killed during an attempt at necrophilia. As the focus shifted to the love affair of Enea and Didone, queen of Carthage, the production likewise softened; their consummation scene was especially tasteful.

Uneven vocally, the cast was uniformly engaged in the drama. The most notable singing came from tenor Aaron Sheehan (Enea), whose light, firm voice and eloquent phrasing made him the musical center of attention, and soprano Rosa Lamoreaux (Venere), whose bright tone rode Cavalli's melodic curves vividly.

Bonnie McNaughton (Cassandra and Didone) became more secure and colorful as the evening progressed. Although countertenor Brian Cummings did not sound entirely comfortable, his portrayal of the love-mad king, Iarba, was strikingly persuasive.

Much of the opera's subtle richness emerged engagingly, as did its occasional wit, especially from Didone's flirtatious ladies-in-waiting. The remarkably colorful instrumentation came through beautifully, every appearance by the cornetto players delivering an extra aural rush. With Adam Pearl providing colorful foundation at the keyboard, the fine orchestra was a major asset.

The Wolf Trap Opera production was, as usual, a classy affair, with more than enough imagination and skill to turn the only recently unearthed Telemann's work into a hot property.

A lot of the score stands up strongly to the competition from the greatest opera master of Telemann's time, Handel, especially in the orchestration and the most coloratura-driven arias.

To give Orpheus extra flavoring, no less than three languages are employed in the libretto - German, Italian and French. Each usage invariably sounds right. (An aria extolling pleasure, for example, naturally is in French.) Audiences at the Hamburg Opera, where Telemann was music director, apparently got a kick out of such multilingual experiences.

Telemann's version of the Orpheus myth focuses on an insanely jealous queen, Orasia, who will do anything to prevent her adored Orpheus from enjoying happiness with Eurydice. Orasia not only murders both, but commits suicide, so she can continue to mess things up for the tragic couple in the next life.

Sunday afternoon's performance at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., found the hard-working cast in generally impressive shape. In the title role, Alexander Tall revealed a mellow baritone that sometimes recalled a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, both in timbre and elegance of line. Fiona Murphy's Eurydice was occasionally strident and under pitch, but the mezzo was vividly expressive.

Soprano Bronwen Forbay revealed remarkable aplomb in the bravura role of Orasia, with its coloratura fireworks and stratospheric leaps. (We're talking a precursor to Mozart's Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.) Some top notes were harsh, but the vocalism was so confident and exciting that it didn't much matter.

Other standouts were tenor Jeremy Little as Orpheus' buddy Eurimides and bass Matt Boehler as the menacing Pluto.

Guido Rumstadt conducted with authority. Except for some wind instruments, the period instrument orchestra played in tune and with character.

Designer Martin T. Lopez put the cast in snazzy contemporary dress (does anybody ever stage baroque operas in baroque clothes anymore?) and created a set for the outer acts that used silhouettes imaginatively. The second act's almost gothic depiction of Hades seemed to come from another production entirely but made a striking statement.

Lawrence Edleson directed fluidly and added some unexpected touches. Any early-18th-century opera that manages to include the bunny hop is OK by me.

"Orpheus" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, Va. For tickets, call 877-965-3872.

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