Dallas — Grover Wilkins is on to something. His foray into the production of Baroque opera fills an obvious vacancy in the artistic life of North Texas. Admittedly, Baroque opera is an acquired taste, like White Castle, but once acquired it can be insatiable. Wilkins’ Orchestra of New Spain explores the micro-space in musical history of music imported, as well as generated, by Mexico in the Baroque and early Classical period.
Historically correct organizations performing Baroque music abound, but performances of Baroque opera are rare indeed. Little wonder, considering the difficulty of coping with the odd intersection of scholarship demands, combined with modern stage realities and audience demands.
While you can set Puccini’s Madame Butterfly on the moon (not yet but a horrific possibility), historically correct performances of Baroque operas must be, well, historically correct. This means they must be set in the period with commensurately elaborate costumes and sets, an orchestra with the historically correct instrumentation and the equally proper, highly stylized, stage movement. Oh, and you also need world-class singers who are trained in the requisite style of singing and performing, which is very different from what came later.
On Saturday, in the Dallas City Performance Hall, Orchestra of New Spain gave a terrific performance of a rarity: Iphigenia en Tracia, José de Nebra's 1747 zarzuela, in a modern premiere.
The scholars may ask, with some justification, what in the blankety-blank is Iphigenia doing in Thrace? Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Tauride also places her there but the plot, in this version especially, is so convoluted from the original in either Homer or Greek mythology as to raise eyebrows throughout. Iphigenia and Orestes are in disguise and do no recognize each other.
This is not a criticism, by the way. If you were to eliminate operas with less than probable plots, or ones that take liberties with history, from serious consideration, the repertoire would be greatly reduced and the quota of great music would be equally diminished.
The only weakness of this otherwise superb production is that this plot confusion is amplified by not identifying who is who on the stage. This could be easily solved by having lines on the helpful subtitles identify who is delivering them, at least until we can get them straight in our mind. Having enough light to follow the sequence of scenes in the program would also be of some value.
The star of the production is stage director Gustavo Tambascio. The stage movement in Baroque opera is highly stylized and, when the performers are not singing, must stand frozen in a carefully constructed series of tableau vivant. Tambascio prepares us for this right away when we see the actors moving their arms in exaggerated motions. When a female body is soon carried in by a very buff male dancer, it becomes clear that they are wailing in grief. It also sets up our expectations for more stylization.
Mexican mezzo-soprani Carla Lopez Speziale and Eugenia Ramirez portrayed the male characters. Speziale gave Orestes some royal dignity, even when in disguise. Ramirez was also believable as Prince Polidoro, although she was a bit undersized. Both women showcased beautiful voices. Dallas-based Fredericka Popova continued to impress, showing growth with every performance. Her Iphigenia commanded the stage. Leslie Hochman turned in a fine performance as Dircea. Nick Miller brought royal substance to the role of Toante, King of Tracia.
It was difficult to put names with the cast list since identifying the characters was a problem, but they all did a fine job: Kamen Casey, Nicole Berastequi, Julie Ann Dieltz, Christian Teague and Marcus Stimac. Dancers were Mercedes Padron, Hailey Von Schlehenried and Jaime Puente.
The “in the pit” chorus was made up of Heidi Klein, Katrina Kledas, Sarah Daniels, and Patrick Gnage (who sang one of the roles for one of the characters who was suffering from laryngitis).
Spanish dancer and choreographer Jaime Puente did a marvelous job in both areas. Nicolas Boni’s lovingly painted verdant seashore set and Antonio Bartolo’s extravagant costumes combined to make this ONS’s most lavish production yet.