I Only Murder One Queen Per Day
By David Browning
New York, NY – On Saturday, Sept. 3, I had the pleasure of seeing what Opera Omnia (operaomnia.org – two performances remain Sept 6 and 7) can do with Mr. Cavalli’s popular 1649 masterpiece Giasone at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. This is Opera Omnia’s second outing, the first being The Coronation of Poppea in 2008. The economic downturn prevented the group from producing anything else in the intervening years, which is a shame. If an opera company can specialize in early Baroque opera, beautifully sung and creatively staged, accompanied by a fine early music ensemble, and make it laugh-out-loud fun, I say more power to them!
We are assured by Artistic Director Wesley Chinn in his program note that Giasone was the most performed opera in the 17th century. Although opera’s high-minded beginnings a half century earlier had taken place in the courts of nobility, by the mid 17th century it had moved to popular theaters. (A modern-day parallel is taking place, with opera expanding from very expensive opera houses to non-traditional venues like Le Poisson Rouge. Other NYC groups like Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre, Opera Moderne and Opera on Tap have also performed in bars and clubs.) So the stories of the operas were written to appeal to the hoi polloi, incorporating folk elements and satire of current events, politics and social mores of the time. Giasone tells of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and his dalliances with women along the way, incorporating those popular elements into the classic Greek myth. Jason does of course win (or steal–you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to) the Golden Fleece, but the story primarily centers on his love life. The title of this article, an actual quote from the saucy English translation by Paul C. Echols and Martin Morell, shows just how far afield a young man’s hormones can take him!
Mezzo Cherry Duke gave Jason, which was of course a castrato role originally, the tremendous swagger and bravado of a young general, but at times we saw just how young Jason was. Like any cocky young man, he was very much into the pleasures of the moment, including Medea, but he also felt something for his former main squeeze, Hypsipyle–both remorse for her pain and tenderness when she appealed to him to return to her. I thought of Jason in this case as a more grown up Cherubino.
How often do you see two mezzos kiss onstage? As Medea, mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn certainly inspired fear and awe in my timid heart. This was a woman not to be trifled with, but she also had womanly allure in abundance. Think Joan Crawford in The Women. Easy to see why a young man whose brain is below his belt is a goner.
Hypsipyle, Jason’s former love, was beautifully sung by soprano Katharine Dain. Although Hypsipyle doesn’t really do a lot except lament for her lost Jason, Miss Dain brought her to life nobly.
The secondary characters were especially appealing in their characterization and singing. Hercules, one of Jason’s Argonauts, was portrayed with great beauty of tone and quite committed acting by bass-baritone Mark Uhlemann. In fact, his was the first adult voice heard (after the introductory scene between Apollo and Cupid, well played by actual kids Cecilia Gault and Dante Vega Lamere), and your reporter had to stifle a “Wow!” Sharin Apostolou, as Hypsipyle’s Despina-like maid Alinda, was a delight to watch and to hear. Other standouts included Patrick Murray as Orestes, Matthew Singer as Aegeus, and Isai Jess Muñoz as Demo. In fact, there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I expect to hear great things of most of these singers in the future.
Crystal Manich’s direction was clever and kept the action rolling, and all of the singers certainly embraced their characters and were completely committed in playing them. The simple yet clever set design of Lauren Brown and lighting of Evan Purcell were very effective. I quite liked how the backdrop changed color and character as the lighting changed.
I can’t rave enough about Avi Stein and his ensemble of early music specialists. How often do you see a theorbo in the pit? I love music of this period, and I found the orchestra’s playing beautiful, and Mr. Stein sustained the musical momentum throughout the three-hour opera. I hope to see more Baroque opera with Mr. Stein at the helm, for I know that it will be done well.