Watching a Baroque opera delivered by Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette can feel like a refreshing “re-set” time-travel from warp-speed to the pace of a gently-moving skiff down a lazy river. Even the opening warm up tuning the delicate classical instruments feels leisurely and quite frankly helps us return our ever-bombarded ears to the warmest and most human of sounds – including that most human and ever-more-rare acoustical voice.
Brown continues to carve out his own musical path, excavating forgotten or unknown works and breathing new life into them, and he is not above mixing genres or collaborations with bel canto opera, French court dance, and Indian classical dance-pantomime as he has done here with Alessandro Scarlatti’s Erminia and Francesco Geminiani’s La forêt enchantée.
In the pairing of these two Baroque works, both inspired by the same epic poem, Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Brown has also transplanted the poet’s setting from Jerusalem and the battle of Antioch to the Mughal empire. Curiously, though focusing on different chunks of the story, Scarlatti’s and Geminiani’s works share a central scenic element: an enchanted forest. The design for such transplantation makes for a lavishly rich visual evening.
Imagine a series of exquisitely painted Indian miniatures coming to life. The single stationary set element is an ornately-carved wooden cupola which arches up, transforming through shadows into a tangle of forest branches. Set designer Richard Quellette has created something both simple and elegant, and lighting designer Rob Siler, has made the whole world seem magical with the use of gobos and light sources that seem to travel across the forest carpet. (One slight annoyance was that two lights hit the top of the structure creating a distracting glare. Alas, there’s never enough time to put up an opera.)
The costumes by Meriem Behri are splendid. The swinging coat-skirts of the men, the drapey Indian trousers, and the silk fabrics all resplendently mimic the colors of Indian spices – turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and fiery pepper.
And yes, there was some pretty gorgeous vocal music in the first half.
Julia Dawson in the title role emblemizes the beautiful bel canto voice – that ability to run up and down vocal registers effortlessly and her obvious delight to hang out up in the stratosphere trilling and otherwise ornamenting. She sang with that innate gift, as if she were some exotic bird in our magical forest and might do this all day.
At one point in this opera, she removes her shepherdess disguise, undoes her thick braided hair, and, in gold “harem” pants and cropped Indian top, lies down on the forest floor and sings of her weariness with her life, “Give rest to my doubtful thoughts.” I was mesmerized by her ease, her ability to give herself over to the horizontal and all the while singing with that same shimmering quality. It was a gorgeous interior moment: a woman alone with her thoughts and, undisturbed, stretching out her beautiful body.
There was something more predictable in the staging of her moments with André Courville by director Richard Gammon. The bass-baritone has an assured and very pleasurable voice. The staging was probably more like the traditional way bel canto style opera was delivered in its day. But its “stand and deliver” (or sit) staging had a static and even stodgy effect. It therefore carried some “period baggage,” so when Erminia removes her outer garments, it was shocking as if she just stripped naked.
What can we say about Allegra De Vita? (As another close follower of opera shared with me, “We love her!”) How can we compare this singing-actress to anything but a force of nature – or that thing she does onstage – some kind of shamanic transformation. As a fox in Washington National Opera’s The Little Prince, she was sly, mincing, and positively prancing on all fours. When I saw her in Cato in Utica up at Glimmerglass Opera in 2015, she burst onto the stage, as I described it then, “a [macho] beast.”
In another pants role, here she plays the hero Tancredi in Erminia. Wasp-waisted and her facial features transformed by a trim beard and moustache, she made me gasp as she came to life, a perfect Indian miniature hero on stage. Her character was all restrained refinement but emotionally seething underneath. She pulled out of the orchestral score single instrumental lines which fed and enlivened her every thought so it became a dialogue of music and gesture. Sometimes her fingers strummed the air angrily as she fought for composure, sometimes her knee trembled in agonized jealousy. Everything about her is so alive in every moment, and she brings out the best in everyone around her.
She shares a scene with tenor Asitha Tennekoon, in what was the most moving scene of the whole evening. Tennekoon has a beautifully expressive voice and when these two warriors warmly reunite in the forest, joy turns to strained tension as they are smitten (they think) by the same beautiful lady, and the opera come together as that most satisfying merge of music, drama, and art.
I was sadly disappointed in much of the rest of the evening. Anuradha Nehru has collaborated successfully with Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette before. As someone who has studied Indian dance, I was looking forward to the second half of the evening’s focus, given over to seeing the complimentarity of Kalanidhi Dance’s pantomime-rich form of Indian dance and Nehru’s complex and well-thought choreography.
While a worthy experiment (and I am a fervent believe in cross-cultural collaboration,) I found the blending something tepid. For one, the attack of percussive use of feet movements notable in Indian dance became muted balletic pas de chat and bourées but without the sharp placement and excitement of either tradition. For another, what we might crudely borrow in language from Olympic-level acrobatics, good Indian dance in whatever form has a grounding quality that the dancers can “stick it,” placing feet and a building a precise form in an elegant hold. Not so here. Neither the crispness nor groundedness were in evidence, and the music did not inspire either dancers of choreography. The different “acts” in the opera, which were really simply dance numbers and should have had gender as well as mood style variety, were not defined strongly enough so that even when the dancers were taking their final bows in groups, no one in the audience recognized the shift to a curtain call and didn’t catch on to clap. Succinctly, La forêt enchantée amounted to a less than stellar Indian dance performance and became rather a mediocre, barefoot rendition of the spirit wilis from Giselle.
The nature of all great explorers of form is a willingness to risk failure. Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette together with Anuradha Nehru have produced some remarkable cross-over works. We look forward to the next production.
Erminia. Composed by Alessandro Scarlatti. La forêt enchantée. Composed by Francesco Geminiani. Both based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered). Conducted by Ryan Brown. Stage Direction by Richard Gammon. Direction and Choreography of La forêt enchantée by Anuradha Nehru. Scene design by Richard Quellette. Costume design by Meriem Behri. Lighting design by Rob Siler. With André Courville, Julia Dawson, Allegra De Vita, Asitha Tennekoon, Kavya Smrithi Adabala, Smitha Hughes, Rashi Narain, Vijay Palaparty, Saisantosh Radhakrishnan, Sharugash Kriuba, and Puneet Panda. Produced by Opera Lafayette. Presented at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
This production at The Kennedy Center has closed. It will next be performed Friday, February 2, 2018 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, 524 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019. Details and tickets.