Arts & Events

New: Ars Minerva Offers a Scintillating LA CIRCE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday September 11, 2017 - 11:44:00 AM

In a lifetime of opera-going, having attended nearly 800 fully staged operas, I’ve never before attended an opera whose composer was unknown. However, on Saturday, September 9, I attended at San Francisco’s ODC Theatre the Ars Minerva production of the 17th century opera La Circe, whose composer may or may not be Pietro Andrea Ziani, or may or may not be Francesco Freschi. These two composers both worked in Venice around the time La Circe was first performed. However, La Circe’s 1665 premiere took place not in Venice but in Vienna. For this reason, among others, Ars Minerva credits this opera to Pietro Andrea Ziani, a well-known Venetian composer who was in Vienna in the service of the Empress Eleonora around the time of La Circe’s 1665 Vienna premiere.  

Whoever the composer may be, La Circe turned out to be a wonderful, thoroughly engaging opera, both musically and dramatically. Starring as Circe was renowned mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, who, as founder and artistic director of Ars Minerva, has brought to San Francisco audiences three lost or forgotten gems of Venetian 17th century opera. In 2014 Céline Ricci brought us the sparkling La Cleopatra by Daniele da Castrovillari; and in 2016 she produced Le Amazone nelle isole fortunate by Carlo Pallavicino. These two plus Le Circe are long-forgotten operas re-discovered by Céline Ricci in the Contarini Bequest of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Céline Ricci’s resolve in bringing these long-neglected operas to San Francisco audiences is highly commendable, putting us in the forefront of revivals of Italian Baroque operas that have never been produced anywhere since their 17th century premieres.  

La Circe takes up the story of the beautiful and magical sorceress Circe who, in Homer’s Odyssey, turned half of Odysseus’s crew into swine, then seduced Odysseus into being her lover for a year. In this opera, however, the story begins after Odysseus (here identified in Italian as Ulysses) has already left Circe’s island to continue on his homeward journey to Ithaca, leaving Circe dejected and vengeful. (This version of the tale comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)  

What interested Céline Ricci in this opera, as she told me in an interview for my preview of La Circe, which appeared in the August 26 issue of Berkeley Daily Planet, was that this opera focuses on different ways of loving, some bad and some good. In Circe’s desire to avenge what she sees as her betrayal by Ulysses (Odysseus), she seeks to seduce each and every man on the island where she uses her magical powers to rule. First she tries to seduce Glauco, a sea-creature much enamored of the sea-nymph Scylla. However, Scylla does not requite the amorous attention of Glauco, and she dedicates herself to chaste frolicking in the waves. In spite of Glauco’s unsuccessful wooing of Scylla, Circe finds herself so jealous of her rival for Glauco’s affections that she uses her magic powers to transform Scylla first into a monster then into a shoreline rock. This is only the first of Circe’s overkill in love relations.  

On Circe’s island there is another couple, Andromaca and Pirro (Pyrrhus), who at first have been separated by a shipwreck in a storm, but who are lovingly reunited as the survivors of the storm come ashore. Andromaca and Pirro are tested by Circe, who tries to seduce Pirro and separate him from his beloved Andromaca, but in remaining steadfast in their love Andromaca and Pirro form a positive counterweight to the negative way of loving embodied by both Circe and Glauco, who each seek to impose their love on individuals who don’t respond favorably to their unwanted advances. In the role of Glauco, tenor Kyle Stegall was excellent, his voice and demeanor perfectly mirroring his character’s stubborn pursuit, albeit in vain, of his beloved Scylla. As the winsome nymph Scylla, soprano Aurélie Veruni was outstanding. Her soprano voice was full of youthful delight in her love of the independent sea-life. Scylla may have led Glauco on with her occasionally flirtatious ways, but she was adamant in refusing Glauco’s insistent demands for more. 

In the title role, Céline Ricci gave a superb performance as the troubled and vengeful Circe. Though Circe is angry at having been abandoned (in Ovid’s version) by Odysseus/Ulysses, she is also a woman, albeit a daughter of the Sun (Helios). As a woman Circe is almost believable in her vacillating between vengeance against men and possible mercy towards all the characters in her island domain. Her emotional trajectory is at the heart of this opera, and Céline Ricci gave a vocally splendid and dramatically vivid account of Circe’s torment. 

In this production of La Circe, which was directed by Céline Ricci, there were two episodes of breathtaking aerial dancing by Katherine Hutchinson, who was trained in classical ballet before taking up aerial dancing. Both episodes of aerial dance occur when Circe is using her magical powers, and both are set to music by composers other than either Pietro Andrea Ziani or Francesco Freschi. The Act I dance is set to music by Giovanni Legrenzi, and the Act II dance, which occurs when, in a fit of jealousy, Circe turns Scylla into a monster, is set to a slow passacaglia by Biaggio Marini. (In the absence of copyrights 17th century Italian composers often borrowed bits and pieces of other composers’ work to insert into work of their own, so in this sense Céline Ricci and her Ars Minerva company are simply following what was the norm in producing 17th century Venetian operas.) 

The role of Andromaca was beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who combines lustrous tone and dazzling vocal technique. Her Act I lament, “dammi sospiriti” was a thing of beauty, and her Act II aria, “Di Pirro eche sarà,” won her much-deserved applause. Andromaca’s beloved Pirro was splendidly sung by countertenor Ryan Belongie, who joined in a lovely duet with Kindra Scharich’s Andromaca at the close of Act I. To further complicate the love intrigues on Circe’s island, there is another woman, Aegle, who loves Glauco and feels betrayed by his obsessive courting of Scylla. So Aegle, vividly sung here by contralto Jasmine Johnson, disguises herself as a man, Floreno, and maneuvers to oblige Glauco to recognize the error of his vain pursuit of Scylla. Comic relief in La Circe is provided by the character Gligoro, sung here by tenor Jonathan Smucker. Gligoro sings a rollicking drinking song while getting uproariously drunk with his friend Floreno. (During this scene, video artist Patricia Nardi flashed onscreen an image of two pig-like human faces, thus evoking both Circe’s ability to turn men into swine and alcohol’s ability to do likewise. Elsewhere in La Circe, Nardi’s images were often dramatically effective, whether serene and beautiful or violent and terrifying.) Finally, baritone Igor Vieira did triple-duty singing three bit parts. The chamber orchestra was conducted by Derek Tam from the harpsichord. Adam Cockerham was indispensible on theorbo, as was Gretchen Claassen on cello. Violinists were Laura Rubenstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci, and the violist was Addi Liu. All in all, Celine Ricci and the Ars Minerva company did themselves proud in bringing to San Francisco La Circe, their third local and worldwide revival of long forgotten Venetian operas.