BWW Review: ERMELINDA at the ODC Theater
On November 23, 2019, the San Francisco Baroque opera company, Ars Minerva, presented the modern world premiere of composer Domenico Freschi and librettist Francesco Maria Piccioli's 1680 comedy ERMELINDA. The opera gave local San Francisco audiences a chance to enjoy the diverse talents of mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as well as the huge range and organ-like voice of contralto Sara Couden.
Stage director Céline Ricci told the twists and turns of ERMELINDA's story with panache, drawing excellent timing from her singing actors and allowing them to create amusing characters whose outlook changed with each situation. Ars Minerva's Executive Artistic Director Céline Ricci has pointed out that Ermelinda is part of a line of Baroque masterpieces that feature powerful women.
Projections Designer Entropy provided sumptuous backgrounds for each scene. The original drawings were on display in the lobby and I imagine if they were for sale they would have brought a high price. The accurate and readable notes in the program were of considerable help to the audience who could not have had much previous information on this opera.
As readers can see from the accompanying pictures, designer Matthew Nash's colorful, flattering costumes placed the characters in their setting and time while helping cast members present the gender of their characters. Thomas Bowersox's lighting design integrated the costumes with the props and stage settings so that the audience saw a unified picture. Joe McClinton's titles let onlookers know exactly what was being sung.
As Ermelinda, Nikola Printz was a much put upon ingenue whose comic troubles came at her from every direction. Vocally, her dramatic middle range was full of overtones as it blended imperceptibly into a silvery high extension. Her bold, expressive characterization dominated the stage. Contralto Sara Couden, who sang Ormondo and Clorindo, was the unexpected vocal standout of this cast. Ars Minerva's audience had heard Printz as Agamemnon in Ifigenia in 2018. New to the company, Couden proved to be a versatile, adept musician with a flair for comedy. Her upper and mid ranges were pure velvet while her lowest tones were strong, well shaped, and astoundingly beautiful.
Countertenor Justin Montigne was an evil Aristeo who wants to keep his daughter and her lover captive socially and physically. Many of his actions were just silly enough to be fun to watch, but while projecting his evil intentions, he sang his difficult music as though it were simple. As Rosaura, Kindra Scharich created a delightfully feminine lover who showed a talent for comedy. Her clear soprano had a silken core as it rang out with warmth and light. As Amidoro, Deborah Rosengaus brought a balance in texture to the ensembles with her lovely dark vocal sound.
Although Jory Vinikour's instrumental ensemble contained only six players, it was focused and powerful. Violinists Cynthia Black and Laura Rubenstein-Salzedo, along with violist Aaron Westman and cellist Gretchen Claassen provided a lyrical pillow for the voices to ride on. The exquisite playing of theorbo player Adam Cockerham along with the fine musicianship of Vinikour who conducted from the harpsichord added to the lilting rhythms, graceful style, and Baroque intensity of the performance.
Recreation of Baroque opera with informed playing and singing by well qualified artists is a delight to experience and I hope that someday other cities as well as San Francisco will be able to enjoy the fruits of Céline Ricci's work in reconstructing these pieces for modern performance. The operas she selects are worthy of being heard for much more than one weekend.
Photo: V. Sadiul for Ars Minerva