By Philippa Kiraly
When Early Music Guild, Seattle Theatre Group, and Spectrum Dance Theater collaborate on a production, you know it’s going to bring in a lot of expertise in various fields and strong characters who will need to work together. When you add in Stephen Stubbs of Pacific Musicworks, Arne Zaslove, doyen of Commedia del’Arte teaching in Seattle, and Theodore Deacon, whose hallmark is enlightening, inventive theater, you get a fascinating mix. What did they come up with in their production of two early Baroque masterpieces, Orazio Vecchi’s “L’Amfiparnaso,” from 1594, and Monteverdi’s “Il Ballo delle Ingrate” from 1607?
These two works can’t really be described as opera, but in the words of the program notes, as “curious and entertaining side trips…on the way to opera.”
It’s the former which works best in this production, perhaps because it’s the age-old comedy of the grasping/climbing dad and/or ancient suitor getting their comeuppance at the hands of the clever servant, and young love finally conquering all (think Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”).
“Il Ballo delle Ingrate” is harder to put across successfully as theater rather than a sung piece, never mind that the music is sublime. It’s a situation rather than a story, with Venus and her son Amor lamenting to the king of the underworld, Pluto, that ladies who put their suitors through hoops to gain their love then don’t play fair but let the suitors pine away. Pluto brings out some of these souls, destined at death to the lower levels of Hell, who dance miserably and yearningly for their lost lives as an example to those who might want to follow their heartless path. Despite fine singing and nice touches (including Pluto’s dog, though Cerberus here only has one head and it takes a while for a watcher to realize that this man in a black suit prancing around with his tongue lolling is a canine), this is pretty static to watch.
“L’Amfiparnaso” (the word with two ‘s’s means outer regions of Parnassus, with only one ‘s’ it means a very rude gesture) is brilliantly staged by Zaslove, who has the five singers in costume and certainly in part of the action as they move around the stage and lend a hand here and there, and the seven mimes in stock Commedia dell’Arte roles sometimes butting in vocally. Paul Del Bene has worked as a clown and in Commedia for 30 years, much of that time in Europe, and Arlecchino is one of his major roles. He is ably abetted here by Joe McCarthy as the doddering Pantalone, Chad Kelderman as both Dottore and the arrogant Capitano, and Angela Bolton as the harlot Hortensia, whose exquisite and expressive use of her hands was a highlight for this watcher. Lucio and Isabella, being young, naïve lovers, are never the most interesting characters so always the hardest roles, but were well acted by Dmitri Carter and Alexandra Blouin.
Lively action abounded, often ribald and on several levels, with excellent stage direction from Zaslove and accompaniment played by Stephen Stubbs, harpsichord, Maxine Eilander, harp and Elizabeth Brown, bass lute. Supertitles replete with dialect and awful jokes, some from the original libretto but others no longer relevant changed to current ones, came from Deacon’s pen. He also prepared new musical editions, first in Italian, and also in English for both works performed, a job that took him a couple of years.
“Ingrate” used more musicians, with five string players, and organ as well as the aforementioned. The production seemed to take place in a modern nightclub with Venus, sung by Debi Wong, slinky in pink charmeuse, Amor (Catherine Webster), in a brown suit and tie, and Pluto (Doug Williams) in a tux, with hangers on, waiter and dog as retinue. One big pleasure here was Williams’ rich bass baritone, whose voice took him almost to the lowest levels of the human range and possibly of the underworld also, as well as surprisingly high and always with a warm rounded tone. The other was Ingrate soprano Linda Tsatsanis, whose well sung dramatic pleas made for the liveliest moments in the whole piece. Donald Byrd’s choreography for the doomed ladies in their beautiful shimmering silver dresses expressed their yearning but, intended to be slow and sad, could not add a lot of vitality to the work.
Program notes were surprisingly inadequate, with no performer biographies, and no mention of what exactly were the roles of all the directors and producers.
The excellent singing from the five madrigalists: Webster, Matthew White, Ross Hauck, James Brown and David Stutz, as well as Willaims and Wong; the professional acting; the equally excellent playing from the instrumentalists; the work done by Deacon, Zaslove and Byrd, should have added up to a highly successful evening.
Yet, at the end, it felt that a great deal of effort, a great deal of good will, and professional expertise on all sides didn’t add up to that.
Trying to understand why, it seemed to come down partly to the difficulty of presenting these early hybrid works (whose composers and authors were feeling their way into the future), partly to not enough money. The “L’Amfiparnaso” set looked like one for a rural high school musical, though costumes and masks (Carl Bronsdon) were imaginative, and there was virtually no set for “Ingrate.”
Had they put all the money into performing the first, and then sung the second with its gorgeous music as a concert piece, could it have worked better?
Is this kind of production financially too ambitious for this aggregate of performing organizations? Yet Early Music Guild, with Stubbs and Deacon put on a superbly successful production of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” some years ago.
It may be that what they are all doing, pushing the envelope of experimental productions of works long relegated to the recesses of the artistic world, is really important, and if they can go on doing it, somehow, eventually, they may draw in the money and the recognition to make this a sought-after success.
Meanwhile one can only send them all the best wishes in the world. It’s rare to have such a marvelous conglomeration of talent in one place and even rarer that they will all work together.