Musicologists get to watch Cavalli’s opera ‘Veremonda’

A scene from “Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona,” a baroque opera by Cavalli produced this year by SPoleto Festival USA.

Scholars lead sequestered lives. They spend a lot of time with books. They attend academic conferences and present articles. They sit on college committees. They grade tests and papers.

So imagine the excitement of musicologists Wendy Heller and Ellen Rosand when they learned that the opera they have been studying for 20 years — an obscure work by the Baroque composer Francesco Cavalli, a work that hadn’t seen the light of day for three and a half centuries — would be performed.

They never expected it. It would get them out of the library. Thanks to Spoleto Festival USA, they would actually hear the music, see the action! They would get a chance to compare what they thought they knew with the real thing.

Rosand teaches at Yale. Her specialty is 16th, 17th and 18th century opera. Heller teaches at Princeton. She focuses on 17th and 18th century opera. Rosand is overseeing an enormous project that ultimately should result in a 28-volume series on the operas of Cavalli (one volume per opera). Heller is writing the volume devoted to “Veremonda, l’ammazone di Aragona,” which has its final performance of the festival Friday night.

In the mid-1990s, Heller wrote her doctoral dissertation on the representation of women in Baroque Venetian opera. Rosand was her dissertation advisor and suggested that Heller examine “Veremonda.”

“It was a really interesting piece to look at,” Rosand said. “We knew it happened, but there is only one surviving manuscript.” And it’s messy. Four different people scribbled the score (Cavalli, his wife and two copyists, one good, one bad). There are lots of cross-outs and paste-overs and blank passages. “It is challenging to figure out what was going on.”

“Veremonda” is an odd duck among Cavalli’s output, Rosand and Heller said. Most of his operas used classical-mythological themes. Not this one. The plot of “Veremonda,” purposefully intricate and convoluted, is a sort of historical fiction by librettist Luigi Zorsisto, based on King Ferdinand of Spain and his wife Isabella. Zorsisto had referred to an earlier libretto called “Celio” by Cicognini. Various other sources probably were incorporated in one way or another, too.

Cavalli’s “Veremonda” was first performed in Venice during the pre-Lent Carnival period. It poked fun at social structures and behavior. “Conventions are pushed to a degree,” Rosand said.

Well, more than a degree. The plot’s a sexy romp that includes gender-bending, female armies and Eastern mystique. Some pretty crazy stuff.

When they heard two Cavalli scholars were in town to see Spoleto Festival’s “Veremonda” production, its director and conductor, Stefano Vizioli and Aaron Carpene, got nervous. They had spent two years scrutinizing the score, imagining what might have happened back in the 1650s, reconstructing the work, trying to reconcile the version performed in Venice with the modified version produced in Naples soon after.

They argued regularly over how best to communicate the story without sacrificing too much of the music or secondary characters. Vizioli said he felt a little like Indiana Jones entering the cobwebbed cave to retrieve the magic stone, then battling his way out into the daylight.

And now two know-it-all academics are coming? Oh boy. What if they hate it?

They didn’t hate it.

“It was extraordinary, thrilling,” Rosand said. “I can’t believe this scholarly niche has become so popular!”

“It was a really thoughtful performance,” Heller said. “It brought the piece to life.”

They liked the set and costume design by Ugo Nespolo, the way the action begins in black and white and fog then bursts full color into the present, only to retreat at the end into the dark mists of the past. They liked that a fecund and verdant garden, symbol of fertility, was employed. They liked the two-dimensional sets and multiple screens that dropped onto the stage, reminiscent of Baroque-era techniques. And they liked the ambiguous role playing and fine acting that Vizioli elicited from the singers.

Then the two scholars began debating the impact their viewing of “Veremonda” would have on their work. It will help them better understand how the theater worked back then. Probably Cavalli’s score will help them deconstruct Monteverdi’s opera “L’incoronazione di Poppea.”

And soon the conversation proved a truism: You can take the musicologist out of the halls of academia, but you can’t take scholarship out of the musicologist.

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