These days it is difficult to catch a live performance of any opera composed before the late 18th century. Mozart gave us at least four works that are staples in the repertory of most opera houses, but when it comes to Handel, who wrote fifty stage-worthy musical dramas, or Scarlatti, Lully, and Rameau – three composers who wrote extensively for the lyric stage – their absence from opera houses in America is glaring. Of Monteverdi’s total output, three operas survive: L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and his finest one, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, the most frequently performed of the three.
The midsize, Midwestern city of Cincinnati is a hub of musical activity all year and, in February 2015, the site of the month-long Cincinnati Early Music Festival, a celebration of Renaissance and Baroque music (and even a bit of Medieval stuff) that includes Monteverdi’s Poppea and Handel’s Alcina and Ariodante.
Monteverdi’s raucous and randy tragicomedy, set in the decaying Imperial Rome of Nero during the first century of the Common Era, is being staged by Emma Griffin in the intimate Cohen Family Studio Theatre at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Griffin’s views on the work and its pan-sexual goings on are informed by a 21st-century sensibility, one that doesn’t easily buy into the story of sexual infatuation and political betrayal framed by Monteverdi and librettist Giovanni Busenello as a power play between Fortune, Love and Virtue. The prologue where these mythological creatures appear is cut in Emma Griffin’s production, not only for the sake of bringing a work that can easily run four hours plus into a tolerable 2:15 running time but, more importantly to this director, in order to intensify the focus of the drama into the Nero-Ottavia-Ottone-Poppea-Drusilla-Seneca hexahedron.
The characters will be costumed in 20th-century dress and accompanied by a small ensemble of early instruments. The young voices of singers from C-CM’s ranks should serve well this text-driven, lightly orchestrated score. Performances are February 20, 21 and 22.
The weekend after Poppea, Kenneth Shaw and Amy Johnson will put the young members of Opera d’Arte through their Baroque paces when the month-long rehearsals for Handel’s Alcina come to fruition in a weekend of performances in C-CM’s ever-busy Cohen Family Studio Theatre.
In a telephone chat, director Shaw emphasized that what attracted him and co-director Amy Johnson to Alcina was its universal theme of the search for love, which makes the work eminently accessible for today’s audiences. The supernatural elements of the story will be there too, Shaw says, but more as a backdrop to the story of two women – Alcina, the very embodiment of fantasy, and Morgana, the essence of reality. The costumes and sets, done in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning, will be both timeless and vaguely contemporary.
The moveable feast for Baroque Opera fans extends to the nearby township of Wyoming, where the Cincinnati Chamber Opera puts down stakes this month for the Cincinnati stage premiere of Handel’s Ariodante. The youthful members of the CCO have been visiting the Baroque repertory for the last couple of seasons with productions of Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which defines the fledgling company as both daring in their repertory choices and comfortably familiar with the style.
The cast of eight, including gifted mezzo-soprano Kate Tombaugh in the title role, will be directed by Mary Beth Crawford “in no tartans,” says the company’s artistic co-director Shawn Mlynek with a laugh, alluding to the story’s Scottish Highlands setting, but in gowns and tuxes instead, Masked Ball fashion.
Rafael de Acha
· Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea – 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20; 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21; p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. C-CM Cohen Family Studio Theatre. For further information: C-CM Box Office – 556-4183
· Handel – Alcina – 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1 For further information: C-CM Box Office – 556-4183
· Handel – Ariodante – Friday, February 27th, 7:30 pm; Sunday, March 1st, 2 pm. For further information: www.cincinnatichamberopera.com