Dallas — If you may find our modern-day gender fluidity a little confusing, you can take heart in that such gender-bending behavior takes place in opera. Case in point is the recent production of Francisco Courcelle's 1744 opera Achilles in Skyros, last weekend by the Orchestra of New Spain at Moody Performance Hall. Here, we have a woman portraying a man, a hero, who is currently living as a woman.
ONS artistic director Grover Wilkins III digs these treasures out of dusty libraries and revives them in what are modern premieres. Pietro Metastasio, a librettist whose works were set by multiple composers, tailored this tale of royalty and the superman of the day, Achilles, portrayed by mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale.
Why, you may ask, is the great Achilles living as a woman? Well, this is opera so it is a little confusing. First, the role is sung by a female because, at the time, castrati took these roles. Thus López-Speziale portrays one of the great male heroes of all time. But she has an added problem. The plot has Achilles hiding out as a female on the island of Skyros at the insistence of his mother. Like most mothers, she doesn’t want him going off to fight in the Trojan War. López-Speziale does a respectable version of a male trying to pass in a dress. Vocally, she launches some amazing fireworks.
Moment of Geek: A castrato was a boy soprano who was castrated before puberty to preserve the soprano voice with the power of a full-grown male. Today’s intact male soprano and mezzo-soprano singers are called countertenors and sing in a cultivated relative of the falsetto. Although some companies use countertenors in Baroque opera, many productions use females in what are called pants parts or trouser roles. Some operas are specifically written for a female taking the part of a young adolescent, such as Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Back to the Courcelle opera, Achilles doesn’t fool Deidamia, daughter of the King of Skyros, Licomedes, and the pair fall in love. (It looks a little weird to the neighbors). The thin plot thickens when Ulysses arrives hunting for Achilles, who gives up crinolines for the chaos of combat.
The production, staged by Gustavo Tambascio, who died of a heart attack a week before this production opened, eschewed scenery but didn’t skimp on the elaborate costumes. Actually, there was a clever substitute for scenery with projected artwork from the era that depicted the setting on the cyclorama in the back of the stage (scenic design is by Nicholás Boni). The costumes, by Antonio Bartolo Hernandez, were as elaborate as they were gorgeous. The way you could tell the men, or those supposed to be men, was that they were in bloomers and tights (think Romeo). The women portraying women were in yards and yards of velvet with a cinched waist and huge bell-shaped skirts.
Baroque opera is all about the arias; showpieces area usually written for specific singers, and this opera is full of them. The Baroque traditional form of an aria is a first section, a contrasting section and then an exact repeat of the first section (or as the marking says “da Capo” or “to the head”). This is where we get the slightly sarcastic modernism of “da Capra.” The repeated section is usually ornamented to show off the specific singers’ abilities.
The long stretches of recitatives that are the other hallmark of Baroque opera were replaced with narration grandly intoned by actors Nicole Berastequi and Steven Young. This helped audience members know who was who and doing what to whom—but naming the characters, like in a printed script, in the projected supertitles would have helped us keep track (Brad Cawyer is credited with supertitles). Dancers, choreographed by Jaime Puente (also the assistant director), offered elegant diversions between the scenes.
As Achilles, López-Speziale steals the show. She has more of the showy arias to sing than all of the other cast members and each one was better sung than the one before it. Her acting was also excellent and she would have been completely believable as the hero Achilles if she was six-foot-plus tall.
The rest of the cast was equally strong. Kayla Nanto played the buzzkill Ulysses. Soprano Jocelyn Hansen was a youthful Deidamia. The excellent baritone Joshua Hughes portrayed King Licomedes.
Luxury casting in the smaller roles made this an exceptional production. The always marvelous Anna Fredericka Popova, in a clunky costume, was excellent as Arcade and Leslie Hochman was fine as Nearco. Chabely Rendon portrayed a confused Teagene, Deidamia’s ignored intended.
There was an excellent, uncostumed chorus of eight, and the orchestra playing on historically correct instruments was outstanding. On the podium, Wilkins always hit the proper tempo and was with the singers all of the time. He kept things moving along and brought great energy to the score. It is to his credit that the audience stayed interested in what otherwise could have been a longish evening of arias.