Arts & Events

LA CLEOPATRA: A Venetian Opera Never Seen Since Its Premiere in 1662

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 20, 2015 - 02:08:00 PM

Composer Daniele da Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra premiered in Venice’s Teatro San Salvatore (also called Teatro San Luca) in 1662. A week earlier the Council of Ten, Venice’s top governing body, prohibited the opera from being performed and barred its prima donna, Anna Maria Sardelli, from singing in it. However, a week later a newspaper article declared the opera a success at Teatro San Luca. Why this opera was banned, at least temporarily, is a mystery.  

Was it due to the scheduled presence of the notorious Anna Maria Sardelli, characterized by scholar John Roselli as “a courtesan-singer if ever there was one,” whose tempestuous offstage life included being stabbed and shot at by jealous lovers, and who had offended the Venetian censors in 1652 when, appearing on-stage as Cleopatra in Marc’Antonio Cesti’s Il Cesare amante (Caesar in Love), she was undressed by Caesar in an erotic duet on the way to the bath? Could it be that the censors relented, given assurance there would be no nudity in Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra, and allowed it to go on as scheduled with Sardelli in the title role? Also, why, if Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra was considered a success, was it never performed again in Venice, or, for that matter, anywhere else until today? This too is a mystery.  

Daniele da Castrovillari was a contemporary of fellow Venetian opera com-posers Pier Francesco Cavalli and Marc’Antonio Cesti. While we have ample documentation of the operas of Cavalli and Cesti, all we know of Castrovillari’s music is La Cleopatra, though this was his third and perhaps last opera, and he also apparently wrote two books of cantatas as well as music for violin. 

Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, artistic director of San Francisco’s Ars Minerva company, discovered the existence of this long forgotten opera while doing research in UC Berkeley’s library. The score of La Cleopatra, Ricci learned, was deposited in the Contarini Bequest collection in Venice’s Marciana Library. Intrigued, Céline Ricci obtained a copy of the score, found it delightful, and embarked on a two-year effort to have La Cleopatra produced here in San Francisco. Ricci’s Ars Minerva company presented two performances of Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra on Saturday-Sunday, March 14-15, at the Marines Memorial Theatre on Sutter Street.  

Premiering 19 years after Claudio Monteverdi’s last great opera, L’Incor-onazione di Poppea, was first performed in Venice’s Teatro Grimani in Santi Giovanni e Paolo parish in 1643, Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra offers pale remin-iscences of the operatic style of Monteverdi. Even in its plot, La Cleopatra resembles Monteverdi’s Poppea. Both operas are centered on beautiful women who used their sexual charms to gain political power in the Roman Empire. Both operas deal with emperors who betray their wives in affairs with other women; and both operas portray scenes of attempted but thwarted assassinations of the notorious ‘other woman’ in plots concocted by the neglected wives. Moreover, in both operas, the attempted assassinations take place while the ‘other woman’ is sleeping and therefore at her most vulnerable. Finally, both operas offer a wide range of characters from both high and low estate, with the low-born appearing as servants to the high-born while commenting upon the mores of their ‘betters’ yet also aspiring to use their connections to raise up their own estate. 

Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra may bear resemblances to Monteverdi’s Poppea, but it lacks the sheer genius of Monteverdi’s rapturous lyricism. Nonetheless, there is some fine music in La Cleopatra; and the cast assembled for these San Francisco performances was excellent. As Cleopatra, mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci was the vocal and dramatic star. She looked the part of the seductress and sang beautifully. As Marc Antonio (Mark Antony), Randall Scotting was a tall, handsome Roman nobleman while his countertenor voice suggested a hint of effeminacy, which is also hinted at in the libretto by Giacomo dall’Angelo. In the role of Ottavia, Mark Antony’s wife, Uruguayan-American soprano Nell Snaidas convincingly portrayed the scorned woman who seeks to eliminate her rival and still loves her errant husband. In Ottavia’s Act I rage aria, Nell Snaidas sang with fury, while at other moments she sang liltingly as Ottavia poignantly longed for the return of her wayward husband. 

La Cleopatra also contains a subplot involving young Alexandrians Coriaspe, ardently sung in a trousers role by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, and Arsinoe, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney. Coriaspe and Arsinoe begin the opera as lovers, then split up over Coriaspe’s vain infatuation with Cleopatra, and eventually get back together at the end. In his lusting after Cleopatra, Coriaspe has a rival in Dolabella, ably sung by baritone Spencer Dodd. Coriaspe and Dolabella start out as friends, quarrel over their rival longings for Cleopatra, betray each other several times, yet restore their friendship at the end opera’s end.  

Alexandria’s low estate is represented by two characters, Filenia, a sardonic, aging woman convincingly sung in drag by tenor Michael Desnoyers, and Clisterno, a servant to Mark Antony, ably sung by baritone Igor Viera. Filenia offers advice to Cleopatra on how to get and keep her beloved Mark Antony; and she also offers the following waggish advice to young girls in Act III, “Girls, if you’re pretty, have fun now, and believe me: once you hit forty, no man will be after you.” Clisterno, for his part, hears Mark Antony singing in Act I of the seductive charms of Cleopatra and exclaims to his master, “No more, my lord, or I too will begin to feel in my heart a growing desire … to make love.” Later, Clisterno, robustly sung by baritone Igor Viera, betrays both Mark Antony and Cleopatra to their enemy Augustus, all in hopes of siding with the winner and receiving a generous reward. In this social-climbing respect, Clisterno resembles Poppea’s serving-woman Arnalta in Monteverdi’s L’ Incoronazione di Poppea. 

Augustus, or Augusto in Italian, appears only in Act III as the Roman emperor arrives in Egypt to quell the rebellion hatched by Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In the role of Augustus, baritone Anders Froehlich sang forcefully yet he also conveyed the emperor’s magnanimity toward everyone at the end of the opera. The real drama of this opera, however, centers on Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Cleopatra is clearly portrayed as the scheming woman willing to use any and all means to get what she wants. Mark Antony, on the other hand, is portrayed as weak and vacillating. One moment he’s hot for Cleopatra. The next moment he’s reassuring his wife Ottavia that he loves only her. He makes promises to each woman, yet reneges on both. At one point, Mark Antony sings a monologue in which he chides himself for his affair with Cleopatra and admonishes himself, singing, “Antony, come to your senses! Be great, and put down that reckless excess!“  

Meanwhile, Ottavia bribes Clisterno to kill Cleopatra; but this plot is foiled when Dolabella happens on the scene just as Clisterno is ready, albeit reluctantly, to strike the sleeping Cleopatra. When Mark Antony ultimately agrees to order Ottavia killed so he can marry Cleopatra, the latter eagerly asks, “How? Where? When?“ Dolabella is dispatched by Mark Antony to murder Ottavia, but this plot too is foiled, although Dolabella lies in telling Mark Antony that Ottavia is dead by his hand. Dolabella has a poignant lament in Act II, capably sung by Spencer Dodd, when Dolabella ponders the iniquity of life in Alexandria. Ottavia too has a lovely lament in Act II, when, abandoned in the forest by her husband, who secretly has arranged to have her killed there, – yet another foiled plot -- she sings the aria, “Mute trees,“ in which she questions her fate. This aria was movingly sung by Nell Snaidas. 

Cleopatra has two great arias, “Dite, ò Cieli, (“Tell me, oh Heavens“), in Act II, and the Act III aria, “Addio Regni (“Farewell to power“). Both arias were exquisitely sung by Céline Ricci. Cleopatra realizes that all is lost when. In Act III, Augustus and his Roman troops defeat the meagre forces Mark Antony can muster in Alexandria. Mark Antony’s weaknesses, including possible sexual impotence, are vividly exposed in Dell’Angelo’s libretto. In Act III, he is derided by his wife, who refers to him as “Cleopatra’s slack lover;“ and Augustus disdainfully refers to “the feeble lover, Mark Antony,“ over whom he has achieved victory.  

For these performances of La Cleopatra, Ars Minerva assembled a chamber orchestra of five instruments – theorbo, cello, harpsichord, and two violins. Derek Tam conducted from the harpsichord. Sets were simple: a couch here, a table there, and a throne to signal power. On the rear wall of the stage area various hand-drawn color pictures were projected: portals, gardens, colonnades, a forest, a tomb chamber, etc. However, these projections, designed by Patricia Nardi and tech-nically installed by Matt Holmes and Kellie Chambers, constantly wobbled in and out of focus. Had they remained in focus, they would have been delightful substitutes for stage sets. Instead, they were merely distracting. All in all, however, this revival of Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra was a rare treat for San Francisco audiences, who owe a debt of gratitude to Céline Ricci for her dedication to mounting a revival of this long-neglected Venetian opera.