Recently in the news there have been stories about long-lost mailed valentines and dusty love letters that came to light after decades of being missing. Similarly, there is a 300-year-old valentine being delivered in Dallas: The modern premiere of Cupid's New Weapons of Love (Las Nuevas Armas de Amor), a zarzuela (Spanish comic opera with dialogue) by Sebastián Durón on a libretto of José de Cañizares.
Durón was the greatest composer of stage music in Spain of his era. He was also a prominent musician. In 1691, he was appointed master of the Royal Chapel of King Charles II in Madrid. He held this prestigious post until 1706 when his involvement in the wrong side of the War of Spanish Succession got him banished to France. This particular work is not even listed in most biographies of the composer. It was discovered by the musicologist Gordon Hart, who made a performable edition. Grover Wilkins, the genius behind the Orchestra of New Spain, found it and was determined to bring it to the stage in a production as close to what you would have seen at the time as possible.
When a Baroque opera is staged in a modern opera house, most directors strive for either modern character development or some fantastical take, like moving the action to the men's room at Grand Central Station.
There are two recent cases in point. One is The Enchanted Island, a Baroque pastiche assembled by the Metropolitan Opera. Here, all the Baroque conventions were followed, from the elaborate costumes to the entrances of the gods on flying clouds. However, the singers portrayed their characters in a modern method that wouldn't have been out of place in a production of Tosca. The other is Calixto Bieito's production of Rameau's Platée at the Stuttgart Opera, in which anatomically enhanced singers ran around naked pontificating.
What historical accuracy means here is that those of us in attendance on Thursday evening at the new City Performance Hall had to make a quick adjustment in our thinking about opera within the first few seconds. On Thursday, when the first characters came out on stage in their plumed costumes and struck a graceful balletic pose to sing, the first reaction was to laugh. You were immediately put in mind of the era of "park and bark": singers where the only difference in physical characterization between say, Butterfly and Tosca, was the costume. However, once you stepped back mentally and looked at the stunningly beautiful tableau vivant that stage director Gustavo Tambascio created with the way his singers were posed, you immediately understood what is meant by the "Baroque style of acting."
In some ways, it was like a first exposure to the acting style in the Beijing opera, which came to fruition about the same time. While the music is radically different from anything that Western ears have ever heard before, the acting style of poses and gestures that are used to illustrate things like physical confrontations or riding a horse don't seem all that different from the Western Baroque era. You have to change your thinking away from the realism of modern productions and, even more so in films, to appreciate the subtle inferences of emotions by gesticulation and beauty of stage pictures created by balanced poses of marvelously costumed and graceful actors.
This is not to say that the music didn't pack an emotional wallop. It did. Mexican mezzo Carla López Speziale, as Cupid, brought us all nearly to tears in the aria when the god mourned the loss of his arrows.
This brings us to the sticky problem of pronouns. In this production, women take the major male roles of Jupiter and Cupid. At the time in Italy, these would have been castrati, who combined the range of a female voice with the power of a male. However, that was mostly an Italian thing. In a recent email from Hart, he explained it this way. "Jupiter and Cupid were not sung by castrati. Castrati were more an Italian custom that never caught on in Spain. Female roles were sung and acted by women, and mythological characters, i.e., gods, were also typically performed by female voices. This is evidenced in payment records to actors and singers with roles listed on them."
In this production, Jupiter is ably sung by Anne Popov. She is completely convincing as she walks around holding her long golden cape. The role of Diana, a female god sung by a female, was beautifully sung by Irasema Terrazas. Other members of the large cast also includes Dennis Raveneau as Palemón (also the Dance Master), Jakeem Powell as the servant Zéfiro, Anastasia Muñoz as both Sirene and Olvido, Tyler Crim as Anteo, Jeffrey Colangelo as Silvio and Ivan Jasso as the barber.
Jendi Tarde, Miller Pyke, Fernando Hernadez and Delilah Buitron all played multiple roles and were also dancers. Internationally renowned Spanish dancers Jaime Puente and Yolanda Granado Requena were a wonder to watch and to hear as they gave a virtuoso performance with their castanets.
The set, by Nicolás Boni, is reminiscent of all of the drawing of Baroque opera sets of the era. It is resplendent in Baroque detail and grandeur (at least as much as the relatively small stage will allow). In a theater of the era, Diana would have flown in on a winged chariot. Here, due to the limitations of the venue, she arrived on a cloudbank that was pulled on the stage. Neverthless, it was still quite a coup de théâtre. Costumes by Antonio Bartolo are appropriately elaborate with gigantic feathered headdresses and crinolined skirts—and that is just for the men.
After intermission, Wilkins presented a between-the-acts comedy. These were all the rage in the era. They were broad to the point of slapstick and gave the audience a sorbet intermezzo before resuming the opera. Here, it was just silly and made the evening too long.
However, that reservation aside, every opera and theater fan should attend this production. If you are not able to adjust your expectations away from verismo operatic staging, and find it to be stiff and overly stylized, at least you will have seen a Baroque opera (in this case a Spanish zarzuela).
It is beautifully sung by artists who specialize in Baroque performance practices, directed and brought to the stage by experts in recreating the experience as it was seen by the Spanish court, accompanied by an orchestra made up of performers playing on the original instruments (forerunners of today's modern ones), and conducted by one of the nation's leading experts on Baroque music. If you are able to make that critical adjustment, you are in for a moving allegory about the dangers of unrealistic expectations, the reality of love and the futility of revenge.