Dallas — The Orchestra of New Spain has a very narrow focus, presenting the music of the Spanish settlements in the Mexican/Texas in the Baroque era. Despite this apparent limitation, the concerts always present a wide variety. This is because the dichotomy is invisible to Artistic Director Grover Wilkins III, who sees this mission as presenting a sampling of this rich heritage that otherwise would be relegated to some dusty library shelf.
Following some concerts that were purely vocal or instrumental, the presentation that opened on Friday evening is pure theater: comic opera, to be specific, and fully staged at that. Five short tonadilla-style comic operatic sketches are interspersed with some proto-symphonies by Baroque and pre-classical composers. All of them date from the mid-1750’s to just past the 19th century line. Only Luigi Boccherini is a well-known name.
Dallas City Performance Hall once again proves its flexibility by dividing the stage into two halves. One is a standard setup for a chamber orchestra, but the other is a clever representation of a court theater. A front curtain, identifying it as belonging to the court of Carolo III (Anno MDCCLXX), rises to reveal a mini-proscenium stage with a painted backdrop, much like those used in the era.
“No less than today's Broadway musical theater,” the ONS release states, “Madrid's two public theaters were a dazzling source of light entertainment in the teeming 18th century capitol.”
It is one thing to recreate the music of the era with historically correct instruments and performance practices, but it is quite another to recreate the way things were staged, acted and costumed.
This is admirably accomplished in the current weekend of concerts, entitled Villa y Corte. Wilkins has assembled a team to make it all happen. Gustavo Tambuscio, a highly respected director specializing in historical stagecraft, brings an unfailing sense of humor to all the accuracy. Costumer Antonio Bartolo creates some outlandishly extravagant dresses for the ladies and choreographer Jamie Puente’s work with two solo dancers, who act as a Greek chorus, also extends to the graceful movements of the singers.
The tonadilla started out as a short comic operetta staged between the acts of a multi-act drama. But it eventually became an art form itself. The five presented here each have two characters that are in some kind of conflict—some romantic and one featuring two rival sopranos.
ONS regulars Jendi Tarde, Patrick Gnage, and Anna Frederika Popova all get star turns. Mexican mezzo-soprano Eugenia Ramirez, who was featured in past ONS staged productions, makes a welcome return.
The surprise is the tenor Sergio Cepeda in his first appearance with ONS (or anywhere for that matter, as far as I can tell). He has a wonderful lyric tenor voice. Pure honey. It is perfectly produced, right in the mask and even throughout all of the registers. Hard to tell in this stylized production, but he appears to have good acting chops as well. He is someone to watch.
Ramirez impressed on her last visit and only underlined that judgment in this production. It is also a treat to hear Popova’s “real” voice, without the Baroque restriction of vibratoless singing that is usually placed on her. This production also lets her considerable comedic talents out to play. Jendi Tarde and Patrick Gnage also add to the general send-up of operatic convention.
The orchestra played the great range of music with fine ensemble and generally excellent intonation—which isn’t always the case with original instrument ensembles. Wilkins negotiated the many changes of pace and kept with the singers for the entire evening. No mean achievement, considering that they were off to his side and direct eye contact was impossible. The only quibble is that we couldn’t hear the harpsichord or guitarist. They could be seen, but it was frustrating not to hear what they were doing.
We always hear about the origins of comic opera and the ballet. Visiting the court involved a stay of at least weeks and maybe months or years. The guests had to be entertained, feted and fed. So, banquets followed by such theatrical evenings happened almost every night at court and competition between the various royal households for the most enjoyable visits was fierce. ONS lets us experience the entertainment at one of these evenings as though we were guests of royalty.