Do you think time travel is possible? I have only followed Opera Lafayette for the last couple of years, but I have started to believe. If you’d like to visit France in the eighteenth century, OL could be your conduit. That is the era from whence this group selects their music and plays the pieces on period instruments. Commander Ryan Brown and Starship OL’s latest voyage visited eighteenth century composers Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Francesco Geminiani (1687 to 1762). I bought a ticket and showed up at the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center on the evening of January 31 (the voyage also departed on the day before). The thing is, I was not sure I wanted to go there. I took the trip because my experience with Opera Lafayette has led me to believe that regardless of the destinations I will be glad I came along. Just trust in Mr. Brown and Opera Lafayette; you will be delighted and will benefit culturally from your trip, just as I was by last week’s excursions.
The program was Artistic Director Brown’s vision; it was a combination of inspiration, need, and opportunity. He was looking for eighteenth century works that Opera Lafayette could stage with music, voice, and dancing. Mr. Brown explained how it all came together in his pre-opera talk. I cannot do his excellent talk justice, but somehow a late serenata by Scarlatti which had apparently never been staged before, and for which the score and most of the libretto for act two are missing, was chosen with help from his contacts to complement a concerto grossi-like piece by Geminiani written for a dance pantomime, which had to be altered by moving the location for both works from Jerusalem to India and having the conflict be between the Mughals and Marathas, instead of Christians and Muslims, because Mr. Brown had contacts with an Indian dance company that had the skill set to pull this off. The unifying factors other than Director Brown’s imagination were that the source for both works was a sixteenth century poem about the First Crusade that occurred in the twelfth century, both pieces drawing on a love story from the poem involving a Christian man and Muslim woman, both warriors, and both episodes take place in a forest. Time travel is a complicated business.
The first stop offered a presentation of Erminia by composer Alessandro Scarlatti based on the story of Erminia and Tancredi in the epic poem, “La Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered)”, by Torquato Tasso . Oddly enough it looked like the stop was in India, for reasons explained above. This epic poem has been the basis for many other European works of art, plays, and musical works. In this episode, Erminia, daughter of a Muslim king and now smitten by Tancredi, our Christian hero, arrives in a clearing in the forest on the run from Polidoro, a friend of Tancredi and a Christian warrior who believes Erminia to be Clorinda, a Muslim adversary, but who is also secretly the true love of Tancredi. So, both warriors believe her to be Clorinda (she had disguised herself with Clorinda’s armor), but Polidoro wants to kill her and Tancredi wants to save her. In the clearing, Erminia sheds Clorinda’s armor. She then encounters a local shepard, Pastore, and asks him for garb to disguise herself as a shepardess. Polidoro arrives and falls in love with the shepardess. Tancredi arrives, finds the shed armor and learns the woman who shed the armor is now dressed as a shepardness, who he still thinks is Clorinda. Tancredi listens to his friend Polidoro sing about how taken he is with the shepardess and slowly becomes enraged with jealousy; we now a love triangle with the object of affection being a ringer. In between these events, the peasant and the shepardess have some dialog about peasant life. End of story; remember act 2 is yet to be found. All of this takes up a little over an hour.
The music sounded like pleasant baroque music, well played by the small ensemble and conducted by Mr. Brown. It was a fine group of singers that included Canadian mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson as Erminia, (the French connection: one tends to find Canadian singers in OL productions). I was not sure I was enjoying Ms. Dawson’s singing at first, but then I warmed up to it considerably and was left with wanting more. Maybe baroque-style melismatic singing takes time to smooth out, or my ears did. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon who played Polidoro has a smooth voice and was convincing in his role as smitten warrior. The two stand-outs for me were bass-baritone Andre Courville playing Pastore, the peasant; he has strong stand out voice and portrayed a philosophical peasant shepard with passivity but underlying strength. Finally, mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita displays a beautiful voice in the pants role of Tancredi. I have seen her in three performances in a little over a year, as a glamorous wife of a dictator (The Dictator’s Wife), as a dead teen child of a prairie family (Proving Up), and now as a male crusader; she was excellent in all three. How’s that for versatility!
This presentation and the one that followed seemed like a dream, primarily, because of the staging; the staging was very clever and quite charming, Disney-like. Opera Lafayette is a small company. One does not expect a great deal in the way of sets and staging for their performances. The team for these performances managed to use four carved tree-like trunks of a cupola, some flower props, and very creative lighting effects for Erminia to create a fairy tale atmosphere; the same magic was worked in The Enchanted Forest using the four tree-like props and a few others. It was truly impressive, especially the use of lighting. Another important element of the fantasies were the costumes, which were colorful and seemed perfect for the story and time period. Both productions were delightful. Kudos to Director Richard Gammon, Scenic Designer Richard Ouellette, Costume Designer Meriem Bahri, and Lighting Designer Rob Siler.
The final stop, The Enchanted Forest began in the forest clearing where Erminia left off. The story centered around the efforts of the Mughals (Christians in the poem) to cut down forest trees for the wood and obstruction by the Marathas (Muslims in the poem) led by a Maratha Wizard who puts a spell on the forest to make the tree trunks inpenetrable. There were five acts each acted out with dance pantomime, performed by the Kalanithi Dance Company led by Choreographer and Director Anuradha Nehru and Assistant Choreographer Chitra Kalyandurg. Act one: in the forest at night the Wizard (Uday Singh) casts his spell. Act two: the scene is the Maratha court magically appearing by use of lighting to recast the trees as pillars; the Maratha ruler (Smitha Hughes) and his advisers consider strategy. Act three: back in the forest at dawn, the Mughal warriors are unsuccessful at chopping down the trees and the spirits dance. Act four: in the crusader’s camp, heat and frustration are making the Mughal warriors rebellious, but Knight Rinaldo (Rustam Zaman) arrives to calm them. Act five: in the forest, Rinaldo overcomes obstacles, including the spirits, to break the spell, giving the victory to Mughal leader, Godfrey (Vijay Palaparty). The meaning of the pantomime was sometimes obvious and sometimes not, but the flash and spirited dance movements were always engaging. Kudos to all the dancers. I would not mind seeing more dance in opera. I would like to report more on Geminiani’s music which was entertaining baroque music, but my focus was on the delightful dancing. I did, a couple of times, notice Conductor Brown playing the violin as well as conducting the orchestra; it looked kind of awkward. The Enchanted Forest was a shorter piece with the timing about right to conclude the evening.
Honestly, if I had only looked at offerings of the program, I might have shied away from attending this performance. It was unknown and seemed complicated. But a creative designer can take pieces of cloth from here and there, a buckle, a piece of ribbon, and a few pieces of thread, then create a fine tapestry, and in Mr. Brown’s case turn it into a magic carpet capable of travel through time, or maybe just weave a dream?
The Fan Experience: The next voyage of Starship OL takes off in May with a performance called “Visitors to Versailles”. Other than French music of the eighteenth century, I don’t know what all it includes, but then, have faith in Commander Brown.
I arrived at the Kennedy Center early enough to grab a quick bite at the cafeteria, the KC Café. It, like the Terrace Theater, has undergo renovations since I was last there. It now has more visual appeal, but I was disappointed the self-service salad bar was gone. You now have to have your salad made by someone, as you request it, which may cost you a wait in line. There are more pre-packaged items now for grab and go. Overall, it’s a nice upgrade.
I selected a cheap seat for this performance which put me in row U in the Terrace theater which is behind a railing. In between row U and the next row of installed seats is a row of movable chairs, presumably for more accessible seating, which I applaud. However, beware that if there are patrons seated in that row, and you are in the middle section of row U, your view of the stage can be significantly blocked. Better I think to sit even farther back in the cheap seats or more to the sides. I recommend asking the box office about this if those are the seats you are considering. I am unable to find the seating chart on the Kennedy Center web site that shows rows by letter and seats by number; none of the links show a chart in my browser.