Tancredi and Clorinda Battle for Gotham
Gotham Chamber Opera began its 2012–2013 season last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge with a thematic program called “Orientale.” Introduced by Music Director Neal Goren as a program showcasing Eastern music as interpreted by Western composers, the centerpiece of the night was Claudio Monteverdi’s early-17th-century short opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda). The program also included several traditional Armenian instrumental selections and the world premiere of a percussion piece by John Hadfield, as well as songs and operatic excerpts by French, German, and Polish composers expanding on the cross-cultural theme of Europe’s encounters with the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Joining Gotham Chamber Opera’s Early Instrument Ensemble were Armenian-music trio MAYA and the dancers of Company XIV, choreographed by Austin McCormick, who also served as stage director. Maeve Höglund (soprano), Zachary Altman (baritone), and Michael Kelly (baritone) sang the diverse works of the program, spanning nearly three centuries of music. (Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera* had to cancel due to illness. Her selections were sung mostly by Höglund, and Naomi O’Connell filled in capably in a duet with Höglund.)
Monteverdi (1567–1643) was a Venetian composer and musician, whose 1607 composition L’Orfeo is generally considered among the first—if not the first—fully-realized example of opera as a new art form. Il combattimento was first performed in 1624 and ultimately published in Monteverdi’s eighth book of Madrigals 14 years later. For Gotham Chamber Opera, which specializes in rare early music, Monteverdi is an obvious, but perfect, choice; for opera-lovers, it is a significant event to have the opportunity to hear the work performed live (more on future opportunities below). Before getting to Il combattimento, Kelly and Altman sang an elegant baritone duet, Se vittorie sì belle (If Love’s Wars Have Such Beautiful Victories), from that same volume of Monteverdi madrigals.
Despite the modest, semi-staged production, Il combattimento proved surprisingly dramatic and affecting. Most of the singing falls to a narrator, with smaller parts for Tancredi and Clorinda, interjecting lines as the story reaches moments when the characters speak directly. The plot comes from a section of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, written in 1580 about the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century (Jerusalem Delivered was a fertile source for numerous operas for hundreds of years). The episode of Tancredi and Clorinda’s battle contains all the melodrama and plot twists anyone could desire from an opera. Christian Tancredi and Muslim Clorinda fall in love despite being members of enemy armies. They meet one night for a cinematic-avant-la-lettre fight, and Tancredi does not recognize Clorinda in her armor. Ultimately, Clorinda is killed, and only then does her lover realize who she is. As she dies, she begs to be baptized as a Christian, which Tancredi does, tenderly carrying the baptismal water to her in his battle helmet. Clorinda dies smiling in the transcendent embrace of her new faith. Not heavy handed at all.
Sean Gannon and Cailan Orn, two remarkable dancers from Company XIV, acted out the story while Kelly sang. McCormick’s intelligent choreography stylized the physical conflict of the battle to emphasize the sexual subtext of two lovers fighting to, well, completion. During a moment when Clorinda has the upper hand in the fight, Orn stood on Gannon in her high heeled shoes (not sharp heels, but still…). She jumped in the air and he moved to force her feet to land on either side of his body, rather than on top of him; that drew a chuckle from the audience. After Tancredi dealt Clorinda the fatal blow, Gannon, wearing shoes with similar heels, walked several solid steps on top of Orn’s supine torso. What had been something of a gag the first time became a powerful, physical evocation of the violence and struggle for domination—personal and cultural, given the larger theme of the Crusades and Clorinda’s conversion—at the heart of the libretto.
A not-necessarily correct or respectful—but certainly curious and enthralled—fantasy of the Orient has been a popular operatic setting and subject since, with Monteverdi, the very beginning of opera. The Orient can imply the Levant—during the Crusades and otherwise—North Africa, Turkey, South and East Asia, and, since it’s only a fantasy anyway, North and South America (Incans, American Indians). Many of the other works performed at “Orientale” referred to several of these locations of symbolic strangeness and exoticism.
In addition to Gannon and Orn, Company XIV also featured Marisol Cabrera and Laura Careless; the four of them opened the performance dancing to the March pour le cérémonie des Turcs (March for the Turkish Ceremony) from Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) (1670) by Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to Louis XIV. Even within the context of not exactly opera, ballet/play hybrid piece created by Lully and Molière, the orientalist nod to Turkey is presented as satire, showing that theatrical producers have been both recreating the glamour of the East and doing so knowingly for centuries.
There were several French vocal works set in or inspired by the European image of the East. Höglund and O’Connell sang the famous Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ 1883 opera Lakmé, set in India. The dancers distributed large, glowing flowers around the stage, and then lounged in voluptuous poses around the two singers. Filling in for Rivera, Höglund performed Georges Bizet’s art song Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (Goodbyes of the Arab Hostess) (1867), which takes its text from a poem in Victor Hugo’s collection Les Orientales, centered on the Greek cause for independence from the Ottomans.
Höglund also began the vocal program with a Polish art song, Allah, Akbar, Allah! from Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin (1918) by Karol Szymanowski. Altman sang a German Lied, Schumann’s Aus den östlichen Rosen (1840), based on a poem from Friedrich Rückert’s collection Östliche Rosen (Eastern Roses). This was one of the simplest works of the night, and Altman delivered it beautifully, with Romantic sweetness in his voice.
The last vocal piece in the program, another French work, belonged to Höglund. A trumpeter joined the ensemble—French baroque opera is less subtle than Monteverdi—for the final aria of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les indes galantes (The Amorous Indies). The aria, Regnez, plaisirs et jeux (Reign, Pleasures and Games), is sung by the character Zima, an American Indian princess. Höglund sang the ecstatic aria with charm and agility, ending on a ringing, crowd-pleasing high note. She performed with genial showmanship, surrounded by the dancers.
The theme of “Orientale” held together nicely, even through a substantial variety of formats, languages and styles. The counterpoint between the more delicate and subtle performance of the Monteverdi and the warmer, richer singing and music of, especially, the 19th century works showed off the range of the singers, the instrumentalists and the opera company itself to great effect.