‘Veremonda’

“Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona,” a baroque opera playing at the Dock Street Theatre.

This weekend at the historic Dock Street Theatre, Spoleto Festival USA will mount the American premiere of a newly commissioned production of Francesco Cavalli’s “Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona,” an opera of revenge, lust and power that has not been staged in 350 years.

“It’s like the series House of Cards,” said Vivica Genaux, the Alaskan mezzo-soprano who will portray the titular Veremonda. “Almost every character is out to get something and is trying to manipulate the people around him or her in order to get to that goal.”

The opera takes place during the Granada War of the late 1400s. Spanish King Ferdinand (named Alfonso in this telling) and Queen Isabella the Catholic (Veremonda), lay siege to the Rock of Gibraltar, ending nearly 800 years of Muslim rule. Veremonda, a warrior queen, seeks to break the chains of the throne and reclaim her independence by entering the battle in the place of her studious and passive husband.

Genaux says that when she first read what she calls a “daring” and “spicy” libretto, she wondered how it would be received in the American South, with its genteel reputation. There are characters who cross-dress, seek revenge through sex, and “are willing and looking forward to doing whatever they can get away with.”

Aaron Carpenè, the Rome-based Australian composer and early music specialist who revived “Veremonda” on a Spoleto Festival USA commission, said the playful gender-bending and bawdy humor were meant to amuse a beleaguered, depressed 16th-century Italian audience during wartime — “like what you find in Hollywood during the 1940s, films that were meant to be light and entertaining,” Carpenè said. “Even though the serious themes are very strong, at the end of the day, it was about entertaining that audience.”

Carpenè and Italian director Stefano Vizioli (who directed the double bill of “Mese mariano” and “Le villi” for the 2013 Spoleto Festival) have approached the 350-year-old score with rigorous scholarly attention. Their greatest challenge has been to imagine how the opera might have been performed in its 1652 premieres in Venice and Naples, and to decide how to update it for a 21st century American audience.

“We are a little bit like Indiana Jones, in search of the Ark!” Vizioli said. “Could be this, could be that, who knows?”

They have undertaken this commission with enthusiasm and curiosity — not with the intention of saying, “We are God, this is our last word and nothing else exists,” Vizioli said.

Though working with the original Venetian score, Carpenè has opted to employ a rich Neapolitan opera orchestra, including two violins, two recorders, Renaissance cornetto, two lutes, Baroque guitar, viola da gamba, cello and double bass. Carpenè will conduct from the harpsichord. The orchestra will honor the composer’s notes to include Turkish instruments, incorporating castanets and a chaghana or “Jingling Johnny” — a symbolic staff adorned with bells. Carpenè hopes to bring the atmosphere of the Arab world to Dock Street.

“The music is so full of life, so full of joy, and so full of hot situations of explicit sexual meaning,” Vizioli said. He and Carpenè chose to ask contemporary artist Ugo Nespolo to design the set because, “I need to have color on stage. I need to have bright colors. I need to have shocking colors. They are expressing the happiness that is inside this music.” Nespolo is well-known in Italy for his bold graphic designs, pop art, theater work and colorful paintings. He operates a large studio in Turin.

Vizioli hopes that presenting this opera at Spoleto, in all its sauciness and colorful passion, will stimulate curiosity. He hopes patrons, after hearing the work, will want to learn more about Cavalli, about 17th century music and about Italy at that time.

“The beauty of a great festival like Spoleto is to offer a new possibility to discover things,” he said. “This is also my duty, in a way. I want to put drops of curiosity in the brains of the audience.”

Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.