Thursday evening Piramo e Tisbe demonstrated that its assembled forces were the little opera theatre of ny that could. Could what? Produce—with scads of talent and taste—a beautifully satisfying local premiere of the 18th century intermezzo tragico by the nearly forgotten Johann Adolf Hasse.
A collaboration with the young period-instrument group New Vintage Baroque the opening at the Baruch Performing Arts Center introduced a fascinating late work by Hasse that straddles the late baroque and early classical eras. Gone are the strictures of the composer’s many opera seria in which one da capo number follows another replaced by a startling freedom of form where an accompagnato can flow seamlessly into a free-form aria then back into a secco or even a duet.
The slight plot of Marco Coltellini’s libretto drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses will be familiar to anyone who knows Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the band of clueless actors perform a burlesque play featuring the legendary pair of star-crossed lovers. Philip Shneidman’s superbly smart and affecting production for little opera theatre took a modern slant on the tale setting it in the present-day Middle East.
Tisbe’s father has quarreled with Piramo’s and forbidden her to marry her beloved, a situation untenable to the besotted pair. They plot their escape but circumstances lead Piramo to believe that Tisbe has been killed so he takes his life only to discover that she lives. Unable to imagine life without him, she too kills herself whereupon her father discovers their bodies and commits the inevitable—a veritable 18th century Tosca in which all three principals end up dead.
Shneidman introduced several silent characters including the suitor Tisbe’s father plans for her to marry to instead of the now-shunned Piramo. As I watched the drama play out, I couldn’t help but jump ahead and wonder how on earth the director would deal with the marauding lion whose appearance leads to Tisbe’s bloodied veil which in turn causes Piramo to assume she has perished. Shneidman invented a startlingly canny substitute via the projection of a ferocious dog, part of a brutal search party sent by her father to pursue Tisbe.
A suggestion of alarming modernity (whether intended or not) also enriched the staging: the proposed suitor was played by a cis-male whereas Piramo (originally written for a castrato) became a decidedly androgynous female who took no great pains to adopt a “male” persona. Thus the doomed lovers could be also perceived as fleeing a conservative society disapproving of their “outlaw” gender-ambiguous relationship. The wonderfully vulnerable and candid portrayals of Kristin Gornstein as Piramo and Kelly Curtin as Tisbe made the lovers’s dilemma even more arresting and touching.
Simply clad in jeans and non-descript tops, Gornstein and Curtin blended together beautifully in their numerous duets. Initially I was intrigued that they sounded rather similar to each other—both darkly warm and appealing. Although each eventually developed her own individuality, their vocal unanimity actually made their crucial bond all that more immediate. Initially I wondered if both were mezzos but Curtin later added some extraordinarily high ornaments that unfortunately sounded very alt-wrong to me!
An especially unusual aspect of Hasse’s work is the challenging pair of extended solo scenes for the title characters that make up most of the work’s second half. Curtin then Gornstein easily commanded the stage for 15 to 20 minutes ably moving in and out of aria and recitative as their character’s moods evolved from hopeful anticipation to fear to desolation.
Sometimes Shneidman simply trusted his two principals to sing her music simply and directgly without the distracting stage business directors often concoct to fill out long 18th century arias. But for the work’s supremely exquisite aria “Perderò l’amato bene” which Curtin so movingly sang even without the necessary horns, he had Tisbe attempt to assuage her father and serve tea to her unwanted suitor. But as the aria progressed, she asserted her independent spirit rebelled against the falsity of the situation—the entire sequence was simply riveting.
As the implacable Padre, Glenn Seven Allen stepped in for the originally scheduled tenor. If his occasionally brutal singing couldn’t conjure the ladies’s stylistic nuances, he effectively conveyed his character’s journey from unsympathetic brute to devastated parent.
The 13-member orchestra (the listed theorbist was nowhere in evidence and it’s hard to hide a theorbo) played with intensity and flair under the dynamic direction of Elliot Figg at the harpsichord. He and his tireless cellist Anthony Albrecht (both familiar to me from their days as members of Juilliard 415) sensitively accompanied the recitatives while flutist David Ross particularly impressed with his lovely playing.
Neil Patel and Care McCrea’s simple two long platforms—one high and behind the orchestra, the other in front of the group—worked well although I wondered why projections weren’t more consistently used. The steep bleacher seating allowed everyone great sightlines but boy did those chairs do a job on my back over the 105-minute intermission-less running time!
The first piece I wrote for parterre box was a 2011 review of the reissue of Cleofide which unfortunately remains the most important complete recording of a Hasse opera.
I fell big for Hasse in college via the recording of an early NYC performance of his earlier florid Metastasio extravaganza L’Olimpiade that I posted on “Trove Thursday” a while ago.
Since then I’ve collected “pirates” of nearly two dozen of his works which I admire tremendously. But little opera theater’s Piramo, Hasse’s next-to-last work and a 1768 miniature masterpiece, was the first time I’ve experienced live one of his operas and I’m grateful for the enthralling evening. Three performances remain with Friday and Sunday’s featuring an alternate cast.
At just $35 a ticket it’s surely the city’s best opera deal particularly given what’s been going on at the Met lately!
Photo: Tina Buckman