Arts & Events

ERMELINDA: Ars Minerva’s Latest Opera Revival

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 29, 2019 - 06:33:00 PM

Over the past five years, Ars Minerva, the opera company founded by Céline Ricci, has discovered and revived five Venetian operas that had long been forgotten. Céline Ricci came across the scores for these operas in the Contarini Collection of Venice’s Marciana Library. Realising she had found an important trove of 17th and early 18th century Venetian operas, Céline Ricci immediately set about the task of reviving the most interesting of these operas. In 2015 Ars Minerva revived Daniele da Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra, which had never been heard anywhere since its premiere in 1662. For Ricci’s Ars Minerva, La Cleopatra proved an auspicious debut; and it has been followed in ensuing years by four more important revivals. The latest, Ermelinda (1680) by Domenico Freschi, had its opening performance on Friday, November 22, at San Francisco’s ODC Theatre.  

Céline Ricci has noted that “Ars Minerva not only promotes rare and long forgotten music, but also is committed to highlighting powerful women in history: Cleopatra, the Amazon women warriors, Circe, Goddess of magic, Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra fighting patriarchal commands to sacrifice a daughter to the glory of an army.” Now, in Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda, Ricci focuses our attention on a fictional young woman who struggles against patriarchal authority to be free to love the man of her choice. In the libretto for Ermelinda by Francesco Maria Piccioli, Ermelinda loves Ormindo, and he returns her love. But Ermelinda’s father, Aristeo, is determined to protect his daughter from the temptations of love in an urban environment. So he brings Ermelinda to a rural village in Phoenicia, where Ermelinda is bored to tears. Her beloved Ormindo, meanwhile, has discovered where she has been taken; and disguised as a peasant named Clorindo, he approaches the village and is befriended and taken in as a guest by the nobleman Armidoro. Unknown to Ormindo/Clorindo, Armidoro too yearns for Ermelinda. 

In Armidoro’s opulent country house, his sister Rosaura develops a crush on the handsome Clorindo. She confides this to her friend Ermelinda. However, when Ermelinda meets her beloved Ormindo disguised as the peasant Clorindo, their momentary joy requires them to dissemble. Ermelinda suggests that Clorindo must be mad; and Clorindo, taking the hint, feigns madness. This sets in motion a complicated plot of feigned on again/off again madness, false encouragements of Rosaura by Clorindo, and a false announcement of Clorindo’s death devised by Ermelinda’s father to test his daughter.  

Ermelinda was sung by mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz. Contralto Sara Couden sang Ormindo/Clorindo; and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich was Rosaura. The various scenes of Freschi’s Ermelinda were gorgeously rendered in projections by the German-born designer, Entropy, who visualised the settings of a 17th century Phoenician village. Ars Minerva’s Artistic Director Céline Ricci staged the opera in ways that emphasised the comedic potential of the plot while also noting the underlying feminist issues. In the latter arena, opposite the earnest Ermelinda, Ricci’s Rosaura was made a ludicrous foil, a woman who flounces all over the stage in misguided pursuit of Clorindo, who unwillingly is obliged to lead her on. Clorindo’s Act I aria, sung to Rosaura, “T’adoro si ma no”/“I adore you yes, but no I don’t,” was a musically effective depiction of Clorindo’s confusion or madness over the role he now had to play towards Rosaura. 

As Rosaura, Kindra Scharich was vocally excellent, and she was also superb in her dramatic portrayal of an airhead. In the role of Ermelinda, Nikola Printz was superlative, both vocally and dramatically. With her lustrous mezzo-soprano, Nikola Printz was throughly engaging as Ermelinda. In a trousers role, contralto Sara Couden was superb as Ormindo/Clorindo. In one of the moments of feigned madness, director Ricci had Clorindo wander over to the instrumentalists at the far right of the stage and tickle with a flower Clorindo wielded like a magic wand several of the musicians, including harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour.  

In the role of Ermelinda’s father, Aristeo, countertenor Justin Montigne was vocally excellent; though his dramatic interpretation may have overplayed the father’s oppressive and even sadistic side. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus was effective as the archly noble Armidoro in his misguided pursuit of Ermelinda. Near the end of this opera, Ermelinda’s father, Aristeo, announces a false death of Clorindo to test the true feelings of his daughter. There ensued a deeply felt lament by Ermelinda that is one of this opera’s finest moments. But at the last moment, Ormindo/Clorindo himself arrived to demonstrate that he is still alive and the lovers were joyfully reunited, as all’s well that ends well in this delightful Ars Minerva production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda. Congratulations once again to Céline Ricci for continuing to bring to Bay Area audiences such a wonderful wealth of long-forgotten early Venetian operas. May she bring us many more.