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Monday, January 30th, 2006

Time Event
6:07p
L'Ormindo, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Opera
I hadn't even known that UW-M HAD an opera until we saw the ad for the performances in the Shepherd Express weekly's art section. Apparently, it's a fairly new program, since the performance notes only made reference to a production of "The Crucible" last year. We were interested in "L'Ormindo," since we both like opera, and Baroque opera is rather hard to find. In fact, if the progam notes are correct, this production was somewhat of an event, being possibly the first uncut performance since the opera's premier in Venice in 1644. There was a somewhat truncated version presented by Raymond Leppard at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1967. Why it was cut, I can't tell, since the whole work is not that long.

The composer, Francesco Cavalli, was a student of Cladio Monteverdi, and is therefore essentially in the second generation of opera composers. The libretto, by Cavalli's long-time collaborator, Giovanni Faustini, consists of three rather short acts, each one preceded by a brief prolog. The college decided to stage the opera in modern dress, as though being presented by "an ambitious hostess" as a party entertainment at her palazzo in Venice. Some of her audience get conscripted into singing some of the minor roles. This conceit left us with the decidedly seventeenth-century and rather paradoxical situation of having some of the 'audience' seated on the stage, which could have proven problematical had the house been full, but we were able to obtain seats with a good sight line.

The opera opens with a prolog sung by the Hostess (Veronica Chairez) which is a pean to beautiful Venice. The libretto had been translated in to English, and we were pleased to find that acoustics in the hall were quite good, and the singers almost uniformly had such enunciation that the words were understandable, not always true with opera.

The first act proper introduces Ormindo, Prince of Tunisia (Rebecca Davies) and Amida, Prince of Tlemsen (Benjamin Burwell), both of whom have come to lend aid to Ariadeno, King of Fez and Morocco (Brent Johnston), in his war with Christian Spain. They each have fallen in love with a lady, and when they reveal her image to one another, are chagrined to find they are both in love with Erisbe, Ariadeno's young Queen (Catherine Schweitzer). Each one pays court to the Queen while the other secretly looks on, and they are further outraged when she receives each of them equally warmly. When they confront her, she confesses that she cannot choose between them. They decry her antics as "barbarous" but neither of them will forgo her, so the trysts continue. Meanwhile, Sicle, Princess of Sous (Barbara Castonguay) and the intended bride of Amida, arrives in company with her old nurse and maidservant (William Lavonis and Jennifer Sweetland), disguised as Egyptian fortunetellers, and begin scheming to win Amida back.

The second act prolog shows us Destiny, who decrees that Ormindo shall win Erisbe, and commands Love to make it be so. Back on earth, Erisbe has terminated an unsatisfying dalliance with Amida, and laments that she cannot love such a worthy man. Meeting the soothsayers, Amida agrees to meet the old nurse in the wilderness by night, so that her magic can assist his suit. Erisbe declares her love for Ormindo, and the two plot to flee Morocco together.

The third act prolog shows us Fortune, who calls upon the Winds to raise a storm and throw Ormindo's galley back upon the Moroccan coast. We then see Sicle and her nurse preparing for Amida's arrival. The nurse hides Sicle offstage, and tells Amida she will summon spirits of unhappy dead lovers to advise Armida. He is appaled when she pronunces that she will "summon" Sicle, having had no news of her "death".
Sicle appears disguised as a spirit. Amida is over come with remorse and tells her that it is she that he truly loves. Sicle tells him that she can live again if only he will touch her, but Amida is too fearful to put his hand outside the "charmed circle" the nurse warned him not to leave. At last, Sicle herself seizes his hand, and the two are reunited.

Back in town, the King enters, raging because the storm has kept his ships from pursuing Ormindo and Erisbe. Osmano, his captain (Rob Carroll), enters with the news that the same storm has swept Ormindo's near-wrecked and dismasted ship back into the harbor of Fez, and the faithless pair have been taken prisoner. The King pronounces sentence of death upon them, and commands that Osmano give them poison to drink. Osmano, who has admired Ormindo for his many deeds of valor, receives this duty unhappily. On his way through the palace, he encounters Mirinda (Leandeline Guzman), Erisbe's vain and flighty waiting woman, who initally mistakes his lamentations to be a continuation of groaning over her refusal to entertain his suit. When he makes her familar with his deadly errand, she begs for the Queen's life, and swears she will marry him if the Queen escapes. Osmano declares he will deliver the prisoners or die in the effort.

Osmano delivers the supposed poison, which the doomed pair drink, gradually falling unconscious in one another's arms. The King enters to see that his orders have been carried out. Seeing the lifeless bodies, his anger turns to pity. At this time, Osmano turns over a newly arrived letter from the Queen of Tunisa, which reveals that Ormindo is in fact the King's own son, begotten on the Queen's sister during a state visit, and adopted by the Queen as her own when the sister died. The King is overcome with grief. Osmano reveals that Ormindo and Erisbe are only drugged, and that he had intended to spirit them away to safety. The King forgives Osmano his disobedience, and, when the puzzled pair awaken, Ariadeno acknowleges Ormindo as his son and heir, and, realizing that he is too old to have such a young wife, awards Erisbe to him as well. Amida and Sicle enter, and there is a final chorus as the various pairs of lovers celebrate the happy ending.

The piece is much more amusing than this brief synopsis can convey. I been rather amused by the debut of diva Cecelia Bartoli's new album, "Opera Proibita" (Forbidden Opera) which has pieces from a period when opera was banned by the Vatican. The casually familar tend to think of Opera as the perhaps the most stodgy and impenetrable of the Arts--how many "New Yorker" and other cartoons have there been of Kirsten Flagstad, a formidable figure in Valkurie armor, yodelling unintelligibly at the top of her lungs while the orchestra thunders on? Not what one thinks of as naughty or immoral entertainment, but this piece shows me why the Vatican was down on it. Most of the scenes end with a satirical solo by one of the servants, commenting unflatteringly on the action that has just happened. Erisbe's nurse, reacting to her mistress' angst at the loss of Amida's love, shows the audience a picture album of her own past men, and counsels young women to "love the act of loving, but not the lover." After the aged King nearly catches Ormindo and Amida in the garden with Erisbe, Mirinda sings a scornful song against old men with young wives. Later, the nurse claims forethought in packing along Sicle's jewels, saying that "when the gold is gone, the kissing ends," a sentiment echoed centuries later in scndalous shows such as "Cabaret". When Erisbe has fled with Ormindo, Mirinda shakes her head over all the trouble, and proceeds to disport herself with "young lovers, and more than two!"

The performance was very well done, and we enjoyed it thouroughly. The focus of Baroque opera is the voice and vocal ornamentation, and "L'Ormindo" with its light score and small ensembles, is very well suited for young voices. The University has some fine ones in the cast, notably Davies as Ormindo, Castonguay as Sicle, Schweitzer as Erisbe, Guzman as Mirinda, and Johnston as Ariadeno. This was the first of two casts for the major roles, but I have no doubt from the level of preparation, that the second cast would be equally good. Indeed the entire cast was note-perfect, with not a false tone in the show. Acting quality was decent within the constraints of the show, with some quite funny moments. Actually, the only one I was disappointed by was Music Director William Lavonis himself, who played the nurse too mannish to be passable, but not campy enough for a proper "dame" role, with the ironic result that the person in the cast with the most professional credentials gave the best impression of being an amateur pressed into service. The on-stage ensemble, conducted by Kurt Ollmann, supported the singers flawlessly and did not overpower. We found the performance well worth going out for, even on a cold and rainy January night.

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