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Princeton University Opera Theater Recreates 17th Century Work with Dexterity and Finesse

Nancy Plum

It is always refreshing to see musicology in action – rather than research that ends up on a shelf, musical study that is put to use on the concert stage. The remarkable 18-month results of the musicological research of two Princeton University graduate students was presented this past weekend by members of the University Orchestra and an ensemble of graduate and undergraduate singers. In the fall of 2003, Jennifer Eberhard and Daniil Zavlunov began creating a performance edition of Egisto, the unpublished opera of 17th century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli. The three-act opera was reconstructed from manuscript sources, and the resulting work was surely a challenge to all involved.

Francesco Cavalli was one of the early opera composers, providing works for one of the first public opera houses in Venice. Like other works in this emerging musical genre, Cavalli's operas were based on mythological stories, either real or imagined. Egisto, likely composed in 1643, is based on a fabricated Greek story, but includes lovers' pairings and re-pairings to rival any of Mozart's comic operas. Fortunately, an innovative program annotator for Saturday night's performance at Richardson (the opera was also performed Friday night) provided a geometric diagram to keep everyone straight.

The simple tree-oriented set on the Richardson stage elucidated the scenes, with the help of Christopher Gorzelnik's subtle lighting. The eight-member cast managed to create eighteen characters through multiple high-speed costume changes, but the cast's real achievement was learning a complex score with a tremendous amount of sung dialog, presenting a nearly flawless and seemingly effortless performance.

There was a fair amount of variety among the singers in volume of voice, but certainly not in professionalism or command of the music. Among the strongest was Margaret Meyer, triple cast (as were most of the singers) in the roles of the star-crossed lover Climene, the goddess Volupia and the past heroine Dido. Ms. Meyer was consistently solid, sounding as fresh in the third act as in the first, especially in a very chromatic close to a scene in the third act.

Close behind Ms. Meyer in solidity was Sean Effinger-Dean, a careful singer well schooled in theater, enabling him to bring much of the pathos of his role as Lidio to life. Paulo Quiros, also with a strong theatrical background, provided a solid bass voice as the lead Egisto, albeit a bit vocally tired as the opera went into its third hour. His romantic foil, Clori, was sung with meticulous attention to musical detail by Sarah Paden, a graduate student specializing in this period of music.

The other four singers rounding out the cast included Amy Coenen, a singer with a surprisingly lengthy background in theater and who commanded the role of Amor especially well; Katherine Lu, nymph like and light in her portrayal of The Dawn; Daniel Skora, who brought much humor and an element of Nathan Lane to his portrayal of Climene's brother Hipparco; and Juliet Forshaw, who often held the ensemble together dramatically as Hipparco's nurse Dema.

No matter what the vocal ups and downs of the singers were throughout the lengthy opera (and there were many more strengths than weaknesses), their collective force was in the mere memorization of all the text, much less presenting it nearly flawlessly.

Although only four players, the two violins (Lauren Sarah Carpenter and Desiree Fowler), harpsichordist Ivan Butora and cellist Geoffrey McDonald filled the hall well with precise playing, led by conductor Michael Pratt. Mr. Butora and Mr. McDonald were especially solid in their continuo playing in an opera that rolled along in an almost continuous recitative manner.

The style of opera displayed in Egisto was replaced by the 18th century form of opera featuring extended arias sung by virtuoso performers. Works such as Egisto are long and in a sometimes seemingly unvaried style. To take manuscript sources from the 1600s and create something 21st century audiences can relate to, as well as enjoy (which Saturday night's audience certainly did) is a tremendous accomplishment for all involved. Hopefully this work will live on in repeat performances elsewhere, bringing much deserved attention to the Princeton University Music Department.




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