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    Cavalli's Veremonda, L'Amazzone di Aragona, at the Spoleto USA Festival

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    Veremonda, L'Amazzone di Aragona

    Opera in three acts and a prologue, sung in Italian with English supertitles
    Music by Francesco Cavalli
    Libretto by Giulio Strozzi (under the pseudonym Luigi Zorzisto), based on the Spanish sources Celio and Don Gastone Moncada by Andrea Cicognini
    Premiered in January of 1652 in the Carnival season in Venice, at the Teatro San Giovanni e Paolo, and revived on December 21, 1652 at the Nuovo Teatro del Palazzo Reale in Naples, Italy

    American Premiere, and World premiere in modern times (362 years later), in Charleston, NC, USA

    A production by the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA

    Dock Street Theater, May 23, 26, 30; with two shows left: June 2 at 7:30 PM, and June 5 at 8 PM - for the various ways to buy tickets, consult this page: [click here]

    This review is of the show on May 30, 2015, performed with one intermission


    The New York Baroque Incorporated, on period instruments, conducted by Aaron Carpenè (also at the harpsichord)
    Stage Director - Stefano Vizioli
    Sets and costumes designed by acclaimed Italian visual artist Ugo Nespolo
    Lighting Designer - John Torres
    Choreographer and Assistant Director - Peirluigi Vanelli


    Principal roles

    Veremonda - two times Opera Lively interviewee Vivica Genaux
    Delio - Raffaele Pe
    Zelemina - Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli

    Important comprimario roles

    Roldano - Joseph Barron
    Zaida - Michael Maniaci
    Vespina - Céline Ricci
    Re Alfonso/Il Sole - Andrey Nemzer
    Don Buscone - Steven Cole

    Other comprimario roles

    Giacutte - Jason Budd
    Zeriffo/Il Crepuscolo - Brian Downen
    Sergeant Major - Danielle Talamantes


    All photos below, courtesy of the Spoleto Festival USA Press Department, used with authorization


    The Opera Lively Review

    My fourth exposure to Cavalli (after Ercole Amante, my favorite La Didonne, and Elena) turned out to be a very compelling experience.

    This piece disappeared from the repertory within one year of its Venice premiere in 1652 after a revival in Naples, and was never given again, until the rediscovery of its manuscript, found in the Marciana Library in Venice. Two editions of the libretto have also survived, one from the Venice premiere, and one from the Naples revival. The music on the manuscript consisted of just a bass line and the vocal parts, as well as some treble lines for unspecified instruments. This is not unusual in early music, and specialists understand that the bass line was taken up by not only cellos and gambas, but chords were improvised by players of harpsichords, lutes, and theorboes. Therefore, today's HIP orchestras will select the most appropriate instruments that were likely to have been used by the original performances, given the vagueness of these ancient scores. Typically the public theaters in Venice would omit wind instruments to save money.

    This opera however was composed to celebrate the Spanish conquest of Barcelona, and it seems like Cavalli might have counted on the forces of the many musicians employed by the Royal Chapel of the Spanish Viceroy. To make matters more complicated, Veremonda's manuscript is riddled with cross-outs, erasures, and glued-in pieces of paper, not to forget that Cavalli's handwriting is considered to be one of the most illegible of his time.

    It was, then, with enormous and patient effort that maestro Aaron Carpenè painstakingly took upon the task of restoring this score to a playable performance edition. In re-doing the orchestration, he adopted a full supplement of a period orchestra: two violins, two recorders, one cornetto, two theorboes, two baroque guitars, two harpsichords, and a chamber organ, with the percussion section including a tambourine, castanets, zills, a cevgen, and drums, in order to render the full Spanish flavor of this piece.

    The public of the Spoleto festival is having the immense privilege of witnessing this work of love. Add to this the outstanding visual impact of the colorful sets and costumes designed by acclaimed Italian painter and sculptor Ugo Nespolo, the talented direction of the excellent Stefano Vizioli, and a rather extraordinary cast with a bright star in the title role - the great Baroque specialist Vivica Genaux - and we are in for a treat.

    Chatting with Vivica the next day (I interviewed her for 50 minutes and then we walked together from the headquarters of the festival to the venue where the other opera in this year's offerings - Paradise Interrupted - was being shown), I was telling her that as far as modern stagings of Baroque operas are concerned, my favorite productions have been done in Paris by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Well, this show had a similar level of quality, I said - artistically, vocally, and visually. Vivica was pleased to hear it, and commented upon her satisfaction with the fact that now in the United States we also have good HIP ensembles such as the New York Baroque Incorporated that came down to Charleston for this show, or the Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire. She said that before these American ensembles took upon the period instrument field, bringing from Europe a HIP orchestra was expensive and difficult. I said, "OK, Vivica, so this means that now we'll be seeing you more often this side of the pond, right?" and to my contentment she confirmed that indeed she is planning to consider more future performances in her native United States.

    The opera itself is quite interesting. It packs a lot in its rather long duration, which needed to be trimmed down to fit a run time that wouldn't fatigue the public (several recitatives were cut to present the work in some three hours, counting the one intermission). It opens up with a solemn prologue talking about faith and duty, human mortality and ambition, and then bursts into a rather risqué comedic punch that uses eroticism at will, with a critical focus on the matter of gender inequality.

    Light comedy is abundant, but it doesn't mean that strong emotions and more serious topics aren't addressed, such as the relationship between power and sexuality, as well as issues of opportunism, betrayal, shame, and honor. The opera which had initially the title Il Delio for the leading male character, talks about the Spanish army of King Alfonso trying to conquer the fort of Calpe in Gibraltar, held by the Moors. Delio, the Spanish general commander, neglects his duties for being involved in a torrid affair with the Moorish queen, Zelemina. With their comic servants and side-kicks fetching them back and forth and enabling the affair, the two lovers meet nightly in the woods next to the citadel.

    The Spanish queen Veremonda is outraged when she finds out about the affair. Her husband, the king, is more interested in his astronomy studies than in waging war, and he neglects her and sees her as suited for just staying pretty and fulfilling the duty of a trophy wife.

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    Photo Julia Lynn - Vivica looking pretty as Veremona

    Veremonda however who is a lot fiercer than her king, takes upon arms and summons other women in the court to form an Amazon-style army. She puts pressure on Delio, who then (opportunistically) says that he is only sleeping with the Moorish queen to better study her military defenses. Veremonda then disguises herself as a soldier and accompanies Delio to the citadel, bent on checking it out on her own to plan for an attack. Delio soon enough gets attracted to Veremonda and tries to woo her as well, in spite of the fact that he continues to carry on with his mistress. Veremonda feigns to reciprocate, in order to manipulate Delio into action. To the latter's dismay and jealousy, Zelemina is actually also attracted to Veremonda, whom she believes to be a man (this generates some funny dialogue regarding this triangle).

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    Photo Julia Lynn - from left to right, Zelermina, Delio, and Veremonda

    Delio becomes aggressive and threatens to rape Veremonda (almost does it in a rather intense scene) but she successfully maneuvers herself out of the situation. She is helped by the fact that Zelermina surprises them (her lady-in-waiting Zaida, a very comic transgender role, is suspicious of that pretty soldier and suggests that maybe it's a woman), prompting Delio to pretend to slap Veremonda around to quell his lover's jealousy. Meanwhile the king has been informed of his wife's strange dalliances with Delio in Gibraltar and assumes that she is cheating on him. He finally snaps out of his lethargy, puts down the telescope, and takes up his arms, to attack Gibraltar. While Delio and Zelermina make love, Veremonda opens the gates of the fort to her Amazon army, and the Spanish are able to conquer the citadel. All ends well, with the King recovering his trust in his wife, while Zelermina converts to Christianity and marries Delio.

    Comprimario characters are very Commedia dell'Arte-like, with lively and cunning servants such as the lustful Don Buscone and the flirtatious Vespina. Delio's father, the dignified Roldano, adds some solemn touches. The Amazons provide the opportunity for some choreography.

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    Photo Julia Lynn - the Amazons

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    Photo Julia Lynn - one of the comic scenes, Zelermina taking a bath; Zaida to her left

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    Photo Julia Lynn - Vespina and Giacutte

    The music is astoundingly varied and does seem to jump from style to style (according to Vivica, the cuts have enhanced this impression). It is fresh, bold, and includes some Spanish-sounding stretches and exotic touches for the Moorish characters. The erotic duo between Delio and Veremonda is quite lush.

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    Photo Julia Lynn - Delio and Veremonda

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    Photo Julia Lynn - Delio and Zelermina

    Now, let's give ratings to this show. Dear reader, this performance was so extraordinary and fulfilling that most items will reach maximum or quasi-maximum grades. In summary, it was an almost perfect production.

    Sets - Extremely interesting. They were dismissed by a reviewer as "cartoonish" and "cheap" - I can't start understanding where the reviewer got the "cheap" from since I'm quite sure that hiring one of the top visual artists in Italy wasn't a bargain. The "cartoonish" feel is of course done in purpose and is very successful at that. The prologue opens up very dark and foggy to match the solemn words, and then suddenly the stage explodes in light and color. Outstanding. A++

    Costumes and props - While Ugo Nespolo was sublime with his set design, I don't think that the costumes were equally successful. For this production, they could have had some zany touches. A-

    Lighting - Vivica in our chat was telling me how pleased she was to perform a Baroque opera with lots of lights, for a change. The sets used mirrors in some scenes to enhance the visual effects, and overall everything looked good under the spotlight. A+

    Stage Direction - very successful, with everybody delivering excellent comedic timing and acting, and some nice and playful touches including the very, very funny moment when Zaida is engaged in fishing, and since her fishing pond is the orchestra pit, she pulls up... a violin! A++, no doubt.

    Blocking and Choreography - while the dancing numbers were quite generic, blocking was precise and harmonious. A

    Conducting and orchestra - Impressive performance by the NYBI, and maestro Carpenè kept very good synchrony with the stage, supported well the singers, and conducted the music sprightly with vivacious tempi. A+

    Acting - A very strong point of the evening, across the board. Vivica was energetic and intense, Michael Maniacci in the role of Zaida was hilarious and so was Steven Cole as Don Buscone, with Céline Ricci as Vespina not far behind. All four artists above mentioned collected A++ for acting. Raffaele Pe was less successful than his peers and gets an A-.


    Principal roles

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    Vivica Genaux as Veremonda - Simply perfect. This seasoned artist is phenomenally good in everything she does. Her control is uncanny with the most precise of techniques, her timbre is beautiful, her voice is agile and strong, and her musicality is sublime, not to forget her stage presence (she is a very pretty lady). I have heard Vivica in many roles in recordings, and in spite of having interviewed her for a couple of hours in July of 2012, I had never had the pleasure of seeing her live on stage since she almost exclusively performs in Europe, and I was very much craving the opportunity. I wasn't disappointed; much the opposite, in spite of the fact that her role in this opera is musically less juicy than Zelemina's, paradoxically. Vivica however made the best out of the less than acrobatic, recitative-rich vocal writing for her character. A++

    Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli as Zelemina - Another outstanding artist; her vocally more interesting role gave her plenty of opportunities to shine, and she took them all. The public had a good time in every scene she was part of. Her singing was secure and luminous, with good dynamics. A++

    Raffaele Pe as Delio - His character is given most stage time and drives the piece's arc (it is not for nothing that Cavalli first called his opera Il Delio, then went for the sexier Amazons reference with the title Veremonda). Unfortunately while Mr. Pe did everything correctly, I don't think he had the brilliance of other countertenors I've grown accustomed with. B+

    Important Comprimario Roles

    Céline Ricci as Vespina - A great surprise! One of the best singers of the night, approaching the standard of quality set by Vivica and Francesca. Ms. Ricci is a force of nature with very good projection, diction, and clarity, coupled with good acting skills. A++ as well.

    Steven Cole as Don Buscone - Another singer who did very well, with good acting and stage presence as well as a solid and well controlled instrument. A+

    Joseph Barron as Roldano - similarly secure. A+

    Michael Maniaci as Zaida - A bit less shiny than his peers but still very good (and oh so funny!). A

    Andrey Nemze as King Alfonso - Just as good as Barron and Maniaci. A+ as well.

    The other comprimarios were all decent, with no one sinking the ship.

    Singing summary - While the countertenor was less than ideal, this was amply compensated by four outstanding singers with the very maximum score, and several others with A grade. A+ overall. This was fully understood by the public: I overheard patrons being very enthusiastic during intermission, and the public greeted the artists with a very prolonged standing ovation at the end.


    The verdict for this production is extremely favorable. This is a hightly recommended show worth boarding a plane from afar just to have the joy of seeing a Baroque opera done right, which is extremely rare this side of the Atlantic. There are still two shows left but I'd actually be surprised if there are tickets still available - in the performance I attended, the house was full to the brink.

    Delio's singer was the only aspect in this entire production that didn't get an A grade from me (it did get the next best, a B+, and I'm quite exigent regarding countertenors). So, this show got very close to a straight A score. The physical production is superb, the direction is excellent, the maestro and the HIP ensemble did very well, and the cast is extraordinary. A+ overall.


    To add to the pleasure of this weekend of great opera, I was extremely impressed with the efficiency of the Press Department at the Spoleto Festival (one of the best I've ever dealt with). They arranged for all three interviews requested by Opera Lively in short notice including making a comfortable and quiet lounge (in the gorgeous mansion that holds the festival headquarters) available to us, and provided excellent documentation and media library.

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    The beautiful headquarters of the festival

    The venue was comfortable and charming, with good acoustics; the ushers were polite and helpful; the playbill was very well done.

    The festival continues this week (for details, click [here]) and everything I attended was of the highest artistic quality. This, not to forget the fact that Charleston is an extremely pleasant city, with plenty of touristic attractions, beautiful architecture, and laid-back Southern charm, as well as excellent restaurants.

    We had dinner right before the opera at Sermet's, and I ordered a dish made in Heaven (with all the ingredients that I love): Sautéed Filet Mignon Beef Tips, Four Cheese Tortellini, Wild Mushrooms, Bell Peppers and Spinach, in white truffle cream sauce, lightly topped with shredded Manchego cheese. Wow! A weekend in Charleston is such a joy!

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    So, dear readers, make sure you insert the Spoleto Festival USA in your annual planning for the arts - it's something to attend, cherish, and support.


    Stay tuned for the review of the contemporary opera Paradise Interrupted, and for the interviews with mezzo Vivica Genaux (her second with us - meanwhile read her informative first one [here]), composer Huang Ro, and soprano Qian Yi.

    Vivica's interview contains several ideas about Veremonda, and this intelligent and cultured artist surprised me again with her sharp insights and artistic vision. Coming soon.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); June 2nd, 2015 at 11:25 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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