Spoleto Festival’s electric production of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Farnace,” is sure to be long remembered, at least by opera lovers, as a highlight not just of 2017 but of the last several years. It has all the magic for which the best of the festival is known, and it features a remarkable cast of singers, each one as impressive as the next.
The biggest star of the show, though, is the early 18th-century music itself. Vivaldi wrote a dramatic and exciting score which, alone, keeps the listener on the edge of his seat. In the pit are young players culled from the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, expertly led by conductor and harpischordist David Peter Bates. He knows what he wants — quick tempi, vigorous articulation, sweeping dynamics — and he gets it all from his team.
The lively music-making by the band fuels some extraordinary performances up above. Singing baroque da capo arias, with their rigid A-B-A construction and sparse lyrics (often just a couplet or two), can present a challenge to those determined to convey emotional intent. But this cast, under the fine direction of Garry Hynes, has no trouble expressing itself.
They sing magnificently, but they also embody their characters well, successfully realizing Hynes’ dynamic staging and David Bolger’s expressive choreography and mannered gestures.
The plot is, well, convoluted and silly. Let me try to summarize it quickly: Farnace, the new king of Pontus, is defeated by the Romans. Imagining some sort of perverse retribution, he orders his wife Tamiri to kill their young child (played charmingly by Mason Fisher and Juvon Gilliard) then herself — you know, to protect their honor. Farnace’s sister Selinda is taken captive and devises a scheme that relies on seduction. Meanwhile, the evil Queen Berenice who, wouldn’t you know it, is Tamiri’s mother, is determined to see both Farnace and her own grandson dead, the sooner the better.
Eventually the evil Berenice calls on Pompeo to kill the child, but he decides not to. Eventually Farnace decides to disguise himself as a Roman soldier and kill Pompeo, but he doesn’t. Then he decides to kill Berenice, but he’s stopped.
All the hate suddenly dissolves. The evil queen decides Farnace isn’t so bad after all, and that her grandson ought to go on living. Clemency is freely distributed. The opera ends happily, to Tamiri's great relief.
Hynes, perhaps aware of the opera’s remoteness, both in terms of style and story, decided to update it in innovative ways. She and costume designer Terese Wadden dress some of the Romans in Roman garb but provide them with machine guns and ammunition belts. Others are dressed like Taliban fighters. Pompeo and Aquilio, instead, wear western suits, as if they were mafiosi or members of parliament. Later in the production, a recent image of a bombed-out city, perhaps in Syria, appears, strengthening the link between ancient Pontus (what is now modern-day northeastern Turkey) and today's Middle East.
The effect is to heighten the antagonistic tribalism and present characters who are, at least visually, familiar. Hynes also might be making a statement about the persistence of ethnic strife.
The sparse set by Francis O’Connor has three levels, a couple piles of wooden boards, an image of the sea and a small golden sailboat that the boy removes from a clear-plastic case and plays with. It’s not much, but it's effective, providing adequate space for the singers to maneuver (and maneuver they do!) without getting in the way of the action.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo plays the sadomasochistic and indecisive Farnace, who alternates between utter disdain for his wife and melting sentimentality. In one moment he is condemning and cursing her, in the next moment expressing his profound affection. Poor abused Tamiri! Battered then kissed, then battered again!
Costanzo has a stunning voice. He is able to sing with both force and finesse, sometimes producing the quietest of phrases, sometimes soaring well into a soprano’s range. He packs a vocal punch, that’s for sure. He tried hard to be brutish, but the consummate artist was always visible. In a long, exquisite aria that comes at the end of the first half, Costanzo sings of his fears and sorrows. On opening night, he tended to sing a little under the pitch during the aria's quiet moments, but the overall effect of his monologue was powerful.
The vocal lines are demanding. Costanzo, and all the others, produce frenetic phrases full of big jumps, melismas and ornamentation, as well as languorous, sustained melodies. Vivaldi gives them a good workout, and it's thrilling to witness.
Tamiri, plays by mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoe Velasco, is the level-headed one, and Velasco's warm and agile voice helps reinforce her character's traits and generate empathy. "My soul is torn between glory and pity, love, cruelty," she sings. I found myself rooting for her, even though I knew she would ultimately prevail.
Berenice is played perfectly by lyric soprano Kiera Duffy. Icy and vindictive, the queen learned to be cruel "from the sword that killed my husband," she sings, gliding across the stage as if fueled by a blue flame beneath her. Duffy's voice is crystalline. When she launched into her arias, her coloratura was thrilling, the high notes like glistening bursts of yellow and orange.
Pompeo (countertenor Nicholas Tamagna), seems like a tough brute at first, determined to serve his queen, but soon reveals he has a heart. Tamagna sings with dignity and a gorgeous tone, offering another fine example of the countertenor voice.
Vivaldi was careful to give all of his secondary characters plenty to do. Selinda the sister-captive, played by Naomi Louisa O'Connell, is a key figure, and O'Connell handled the balancing act — both dramatic and vocal — expertly. Aquilo (baritone Kyle Pfortmiller) and Gilade (mezzo-soprano Augusta Caso) were worthy rivals for Selinda's affections. They sang beautifully.
The chorus of Roman soldiers and Taliban fighters, each interested in achieving "righteous vengeance," sounded great, too, and they managed the stage blocking and military paraphernalia like troopers.
Spoleto Festival has done us a kindness to present such an energetic sampling of baroque opera in Charleston.