Monteverdi's "Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" twice in one season in New York, in performances only months apart? Especially after Anna Caterina Antonacci's riveting take on the 20-minute work last November at the Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, what more could a small opera company like the Gotham Chamber Opera add to the discussion? As it turns out, there was quite a bit.
First, there was the setting, the Metropolitan Museum's Arms and Armor Court Gallery, which seemed like a good choice for the work. The early 17th century opera/madrigal/scena tells the tragic tale of Clorinda, who is dressed as a man and is fatally wounded in battle by her love Tancredi. With her last breath, she asks him to baptize her for her salvation.
As it turned out, the gallery wasn't really a natural for the piece, with the small-ish audience standing in a bunch, fighting [as much as this kind of crowd fights] for a view and with surtitles far above eye level. The sound was good, however, with the early music ensemble on instruments from the Met's collection led by Gotham's artistic director, Neal Goren. But I kept wishing we were in the gallery of the Met's Spanish courtyard, the Vélez Blanco Patio, looking down at the action (though I couldn't vouch for the acoustics).
Then there was the companion piece--not by another Renaissance composer but by a young American, Lembit Beecher, with libretto by Hannah Moscovitch. Commissioned by the company, "I Have No Stories to Tell You" was an inspired choice--a modern take on war--and a compelling counterpoint for the Monteverdi. Both were directed with a clear eye by Robin Guarino.
Performed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, with the audience seated this time, Beecher's opera tells of a woman returning from war with PTSD and her inability to communicate with her husband. The unwinding of her backstory is devastating. The score, this time played by the ensemble with the addition of electronics, was filled with edgy moments during the woman's flashbacks on her trauma, but the vocal writing was surprisingly melodic.
Beecher was Gotham's 2011-13 composer-in-residence, from a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I look forward to hearing his work again.
Finally, there was the cast--Antonacci did everything herself, but that's her take on the material. There were a couple of standout performances in the Monteverdi, from mezzo Abigail Fischer as one of the narrators and baritone Craig Verm as Tancredi. Verm also excelled in the Beecher piece in the role of the husband, as did mezzo Beth Clayton, as Sorrel, who brought out the skittishness and unease of her character. Tenor Samuel Levine was properly crude as Noah, Sorrel's attacker, and did well as the second narrator in the Monteverdi. Fischer was also part of a three-person chorus of narrators--with Sarah Tucker and Rachel Calloway--in the Beecher, that added much to the off-kilter mood of the work
With the Metropolitan Opera unlikely to do any site-specific productions--unless they try a version of Britten's MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM during one of their summer ventures in New York's Central Park--it's up to small, adventurous companies like the Gotham Chamber Opera to pick up the slack. I look forward to more of them.