I first heard about Ars Minerva just a few months ago, at the end of November, when intriguing email whispered to me that a new opera company would be staging an unknown work, La Cleopatra, which had been written in the 17th century for the Venetian carnival season. Well, the combination of 17th century, Venice, and unknown is completely irresistible, so this past Sunday, March 15, I took myself to Marine's Memorial Theater for the second of two shows.
If you weren't there, or at the Saturday show, darlings, you missed a huge treat. La Cleopatra, with music by Daniele da Castrovillari, to a libretto by Giacomo dall'Angelo, hasn't been heard since it was performed back in 1662 at Venice's Teatro San Angelo. Celine Ricci, the moving force behind Ars Minerva, found a microfilm of the score at the UC Berkeley Library, if I have this correctly, and was able to obtain rights to perform it.
La Cleopatra's libretto is a hoot and a half. It takes the romance between Antony and Cleopatra, makes Antony's wife Octavia a major character, throws in another suitor or two of Cleopatra's (and the lover of one of the suitors), a timid assassin, and a travesty nurse. Oh, did I mention that it's a comedy? Spoiler alert: at the end, everybody is still alive and most are paired up.
The production was billed as semi-staged, which is fair enough, though I would have guessed it was fully staged. There isn't that much action; characters come on, sing a solo or duet, and leave. Celine Ricci was responsible for the imaginative mise-en-espace, doing a lot with very little in the way of props, in front of projections that provided the only scenery. Each character (except the travesty nurse, I believe) wore plain black, with a crown or circlet or other jewelry.
The tiny orchestra, which played beautifully - with spirit, rhythmic point, and good tuning - was visible on stage throughout the three acts. A big hand to harpsichordist/conductor Derek Tam, Adam Cockerham on theorbo and...vilhuela?, Gretchen Claasen on cello, and violinists Natalie Carducci and Laura Rubenstein-Salzedo; you all played like champs.
And getting to the heart of the matter: the music is extremely beautiful, in that austere, 17th c. Italian style. If you've heard any of the Monteverdi operas, well, you have some familiarity with what La Cleopatra sounds like. I counted three separate rage arias, which might be some kind of record, not to mention love duets, quite a bit of hilarious flirtiness from the nurse, and a gorgeous lament from Cleopatra.
I liked all of the singers a great deal! Ricci herself sang Cleopatra in a rich, dark, almost contralto mezzo-soprano, which made a fine contrast with countertenor Randall Scotting's Antony. He has an exceptionally fine strong voice, with plenty of character. Nell Snaidas was an appealing Ottavia, Jennifer Ellis Kampani a spirited Coriaspe and one of my favorites in the cast. Molly Mahoney sang a touching Arsinoe, Coriaspe's paramour. Tenor Mike Desnoyers clearly had a great time with Filenia, the nurse; baritone Igor Vieira played the other comic role, the timid assassin Clisterno. Both were hilarious and sang with character and verve.
Spencer Dodd, baritone, ably sang both Dollabela and Arante, and baritone Anders Froelich ultimately settled everything as Augustus. Lastly, a singer to watch: the young and handsome tenor James Hogan as Domitio, who sang gorgeously in a very tiny part.
I'm looking forward to hearing more of each singer, and especially to Ars Minerva's next productions. It's important for lesser-known operas to be staged: we need to know the context for the greatest composers and the eras in which they worked. Can you name any late 18th c. opera composers other than Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart? That's the point. The more we know about their contemporaries, the better we can understand them. Similarly, we can't fully understand 17th c. Venetian opera if the only composer we know is Monteverdi. And you never know what gems are lurking in manuscripts untouched for 300 years.