This past weekend, Bowling Green State University, in conjunction with the Eastman School of Music and its director of Early Music, renowned lutenist Paul Oâ€™Dette, mounted the first staged performances of Venetian composer Francesco Cavalliâ€™s opera La virtÃ¹ deâ€™ strali dâ€™Amore (The Power of Loveâ€™s Arrows) since 1642. Aside from rescuing a groundbreaking, funny, and musically appealing work from total obscurity, the production was a refreshing example of creative risk-taking and collaboration in a university setting. Musicologist Vincent Corrigan prepared the new performing edition, Ronald Shields directed, Oâ€™Dette conducted from the lute, and harpsichordist Kevin Bylsma prepared the more than 30 solo singers.
Cavalliâ€™s score is typical of mid-17th century monody, consisting of highly lyrical, cadence-heavy, and often harmonically eccentric recitative interspersed with brief moments of arioso and choral writing. Recognizable set pieces are few and far between: a cheekily boastful aria sung by the arrow-wielding titular character Amore (Cupid) is easily the catchiest and most distinctive single moment in the score. In his direction, Oâ€™Dette kept the rhythmic lilt and vitality of late-Renaissance dance music in focus while using the artful timing of cadences to underscore expressive moments. The Eastman Schoolâ€™s Collegium Musicum, a small band of lutes and strings seated in the round, was unified, fluid, and buoyant, and provided a ringing endorsement for Eastmanâ€™s early music program. BGSUâ€™s student cast showed an admirable grasp of early Baroque style overall and, though the level of vocalism was understandably uneven given the enormous cast, there were some standout performers, particularly among the characters of the gods.
Director Shieldâ€™s production, featuring choreography by Michael Ellison, costumes by Margaret McCubbin, sets by Steve Boone, and color-intensive lighting by Keith Hofacker, was visually and conceptually audacious, transplanting Giovanni Faustiniâ€™s knowingly clichÃ©d libretto centered on the amorous exploits of assorted Roman gods and humans from its original Venetian setting to the island of Macau, a Portuguese trading post with connections to all of Asia. The resulting visual fracas, which triggered memories of everything from â€œPuss in Bootsâ€ to Big Trouble in Little China to Kiss tribute bands, and which featured a comical pair of scene-changing ninjas, invited, but avoided, aesthetic collapse under the weight of its own influences. The integration of the seemingly incongruous design elements -- the ninjas not only changed scenery but also provided rhythmic sword-fighting sound effects on wood blocks; the characters in Asian costume used the percussive opening of decorative fans as musical accents; the stark contrasts in costume and ethnic origin helped to articulate the boundaries between the intersecting plot worlds of humans, gods, and other supernatural beings, etc. -- provided enough conceptual clarity to justify its own outrageousness, and it embraced the notion that Baroque opera was first and foremost a spectacle for the audience.
The entire production will be repeated at the Eastman School of Musicâ€™s Kilbourn Hall in Rochester, New York, on Friday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m. The opportunity to hear Paul Oâ€™Detteâ€™s masterful music direction alone should be enough to entice early music fans.