With tedious Scarlatti pastoral, Haymarket Opera’s Baroque repertory needs fixing

Sat Oct 25, 2014 at 4:41 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chelsea Morris and Karim Sulayman in Haymarket Opera's production of Scarlatti's "Gli equivoci nel sembiante."
Chelsea Morris and Karim Sulayman in Haymarket Opera’s production of Scarlatti’s “Gli equivoci nel sembiante.”

The relentlessly ardent love proclamations of shepherds and shepherdesses are starting to get tiresome.

Haymarket Opera opened its fourth season Friday night at Mayne Stage with yet another pastoral comedy, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Gli equivoci del sembiante, a work even more obscure than previous operas staged since Craig Trompeter launched his company in 2011. And while the worthy performance was in the same vein as prior outings, with an appealing young cast and performed in Haymarket’s historically informed Baroque style, it still made for a long, predictable and often tedious evening.

It’s hard not to feel that in its fourth season, Haymarket Opera is a company at a crossroads. Trompeter’s launching of a Baroque opera ensemble from scratch is an enormously impressive achievement, and Haymarket has been a success in its admirable mission of presenting early operas in a manner that is authentic in terms of staging conventions as well as performed on period instruments.

But sitting through the interminable 95-minute unbroken first half of Gli equivoci, one has to wonder if the fledgling company has become too comfortable with its popularity and is resting on its laurels. It’s increasingly hard to avoid feeling that the niche emphasis on pastoral comedies has turned into a creative rut.

One can appreciate that Haymarket Opera is growing responsibly and not going the way of deficit spending and/or crisis management at other Chicago music organizations.

But sometimes there’s a fine line between fiscal discipline and artistic stagnation. Instead of endlessly presenting second-rate pastoral comedies, why not stretch the company—and the audience—with a dramatic three-act Handel opera or works by other composers that offer greater substance? There is a wide range of Baroque opera repertory that the company could mount that wouldn’t necessarily break the bank. Basta with the shepherds, already!

Haymarket’s audience—whose vociferous cheers and applause make the insular Beethoven Festival crowd seem diffident—clearly enjoyed Friday’s performance more than I did. Scarlatti’s Gli equivoci del sembiante (freely translated as “Equivocal Appearances”) has had few appearances in the past 300 years, and at several junctures it wasn’t hard to understand why.

The scenario is rickety scaffolding for a tale of the usual Baroque country matters, here spiced by a misunderstood note and a pair of twin brothers. The recalcitrant nymph Clori is wooed by the lovelorn shepherd Eurillo (who is actually another shepherd, Armindo, in disguise). Added complications include Clori’s jealous, meddling sister Lisetta who wants Eurillo for herself. Ultimately she gets her wish when the real Eurillo appears, Armindo confesses his masquerade, the two men are revealed as twin brothers, and both pairs of lovers are united happily.

The ludicrous final moments of the opera offered a genuinely amusing payoff but it was a long time to wait for a laugh. Much of Scarlatti’s music is attractive without being memorable, undone by numbing acres of recitative, and ceaselessly earnest protestations of love that change to betrayal and anger.

Chelsea Morris as Clori and Ryan Townsend Strand as the duplicitous Armindo proved appealing and likable leads, both singing gracefully and moving well with a nice sense of Baroque style. What was missing from the two young artists was a greater expressive range. Both singers approached too many arias in a generalized fashion, sung at a steady forte and bringing little emotional nuance and dynamic variety to the melancholy moments. The opera plot and absurd situations may be artificial but the emotions should be real.

Director Sarah Edgar bears some responsibility for that too, as well as too many repeated gestures by the artists, and the bizarre decision to have three of the four singers wearing masks for the entire opera. More varied lighting might have diluted the ennui as well

As the vixenish Lisetta, Erica Schuller’s thin soprano proved light even by Baroque standards, yet she provided a welcome energy boost to the long first half, occasionally crossing the line from vivacity to muggery. As the real Eurillo, Karim Sulayman made a strong impact in his belated appearance even if his tenor proved fitfully wavery of pitch.

Likewise, there was more wayward violin intonation than usual from the period-instrument chamber ensemble but otherwise the playing was tight and inspired under Trompeter’s idiomatic direction from the viola de gamba. Jory Vinikour’s stylish and delightful harpsichord work was the most consistent element of the evening.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Gli equivoci del sembiante repeats 5 p.m. Saturday. haymarketopera.org.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “With tedious Scarlatti pastoral, Haymarket Opera’s Baroque repertory needs fixing”

  1. Posted Oct 27, 2014 at 3:07 pm by David Steinhoff

    That is about the most misbegotten review I’ve ever read. He might as well complain that the themes Shakespeare repeated in his comedies made them too trite to justify staging for modern audiences. The only criticism that I’ll give L.J. is that the violins struggled at several points, as they have in the past. Otherwise, the freshness and quality of the productions Haymarket has assembled recently are revelations to contemporary audiences and serve to inform us about a bygone and sadly forgotten era of great music and comedic opera.

  2. Posted Oct 27, 2014 at 4:07 pm by ChiLynne

    Completely agree with Mr. Steinhoff. Saw the Saturday performance and found it delightful. Of course, the plot is ridiculous, and that was part of the fun. The music is lovely and was a treat to hear. Not sure how much nuanced acting is historically appropriate – that said, I was never bored. Thought Chelsea Morris was wonderful and the other singers fine enough though the men’s voices were too often almost inaudible. Agree regarding the intonation problems in the violin section – needs to be fixed! Overall, really enjoyed this production and believe Haymarket demonstrated further artistic growth. (OK, quibble time: great costumes, but the trousers design was, again, seriously unflattering to the female form.)

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