Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ensemble PHOENIX premieres Velasco's "Venus and Adonis"

Photo: Andres Lacko
The Israeli premiere of Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco’s (1644-1728) opera “Venus and Adonis – La Purpura de la Rosa” (The Blood of the Rose), performed by Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX (director: Myrna Herzog) took place in the Kiryat Ye’arim Church on September 26th 2013 as part of the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Composed in Peru in 1701, this was the first opera written and staged in the New World. Using a revised version of the score she put together, Myrna Herzog directed a team of local singers and players. Stage director was Regina Alexandrovskaya of the Israeli Opera.

The plot of “Venus and Adonis” is the proverbial ménage à trois situation, a story of manipulation, jealousy and suspicion doused with a good measure of mythological fantasy and the powers of nature and fate. One of the more curious features of this story is the unconventional subversion of male-female interaction. Here, it is Venus who calls the cards, wielding power and mischief, leaving Mars hurt and in the weaker position. Cupid is everywhere and hard at work updating, shooting arrows and eavesdropping. The noble Adonis, who had rescued Venus, is gored to death by a wild boar. Whether your family therapist would agree with the final apotheosis or not, Venus ends up ascending to the heavens as the evening star and Adonis as the flower of sacrificial virtue.

Here was another groundbreaking event initiated and directed by Dr. Myrna Herzog. It began with her finding a score of the opera in New York some years back and returning to Israel with the hope of performing it one day with her PHOENIX musicians. Following a conversation with Hanna Tzur (musical director of the Abu Gosh Festival) in which Tzur suggested Herzog stage the work at the Abu Gosh Festival, Ensemble PHOENIX founder and director set to preparing a new score of the opera from a new transcription sent to her by Diana Fernández Calvo (one of Argentina’s most important women composers). Herzog’s project included translating the complete score into English for the sake of her Israeli musicians. In her great love of theatre and Baroque opera in particular, each word of the text would be of importance to presenting an authentic- and convincing performance. In rehearsals, Brazilian-born Herzog explained each nuance and idiom of the Spanish text to her singers and players; no metaphor or play-on-words was to pass unaddressed. She told me that the rehearsal process was a voyage of self-discovery for all the singers, as each took on the personality and emotions of the character(s) at hand. So, what the festival audience was presented with was a theatrically staged performance that shone, moved with energy, surprised and delighted.

As usual, Myrna Herzog’s choice of singers included some artists at the height of their careers and some new faces. Revital Raviv presented the scheming, feminine, languorous and appealing Venus with alacrity, her pearly soprano voice as fresh as ever. Hadas Faran-Asia portrayed Adonis with presence and competence, her large, fruity vocal timbre expressing the impending tragedy of the situation, her dramatic coloration of the text reaching out into all corners of the church. A Spanish speaker, soprano Michal Okon is on home territory in this medium. As Bellona, Mars’ sister, the Roman goddess of war, she addresses both audience and stage to inspire warlike frenzy, her sturdy, stable voice serving the role well. Countertenor Alon Harari was a charismatic Mars, Venus’ hurt, (has-been) lover, giving full passion to the role of a man caught in the dramatic gridlock of the situation. His articulacy and his compellingly well-endowed and very beautiful vocal timbre drew the audience deeper into the musical/theatrical experience. Then there is the multi-faceted artist Eliav Lavi. As a member of the instrumental ensemble, he played both theorbo and Baroque guitar; a tenor, he also sang three roles, sang in ensembles, often playing and singing at the same time. His versatility – including his sonorous voice venturing down into bass range! - added much to the dynamic character of the work. A feather in his cap! Talia Dishon made for an excellent Cupid, her dynamic, whimsical, imp-like facial expressions and fleet-of-foot movements genially used to advise and manipulate as she flitted around the stage; her easeful and creamy soprano timbre provided listeners with much felicity. Ella Rosner and Liat Lidor gave charming, informed presence to their roles as peasant girls (and other roles). The opera includes many vocal ensembles; consisting of mostly high voices, these were well coordinated, creating the silvery brightness of the rustic scene. Ensemble pieces sung behind the orchestra evoked more intimate interaction.

Regina Alexandrovskaya’s stage direction excelled in its small, effective touches. The opera opened with singers entering the stage as contemporary people in street clothing - one talking on a cell ‘phone, another reading a newspaper, another wearing earphones, some carrying brightly colored, fashionable handbags, etc. My fear was that we were about to see yet another opera in contemporary dress and staging. But, no. As if to transport us from the 21st century back to the early 18th century, these modern items disappeared into thin air, enabling us to leave today’s reality and revel in the pastoral atmosphere. Costumes were suited to quick changes – hats, pretty floral garlands, togas and a pair of wings for Cupid, as well as black masks and funereal black outfits worn by Fear, Suspicion, Envy and Wrath. This costuming was simple, humorous and effective, with no bombastic outfits to distract one’s attention from the emotional undercurrents and obstacle course of the love story itself. One of the most humorous moments was when Eliav Lavi (the ultimate quick-change artist) suddenly appeared as Blackbearded Disappointment, leaning on a stick, wearing a black hat and dark glasses and carrying shackles! Another clever effect was that of a scarf held in the form of a frame to represent a mirror: through this mirror, Mars sees Venus embracing Adonis.

Seated on stage, Herzog’s instrumental ensemble created the magical colors of the score, one spiced with many jaunty dance rhythms and the rich timbral colors inherent in Peruvian music. In this work, the continuo part is very tricky, sometimes deviating drastically from the vocal parts. The ensemble consisted of Marina Minkin-harpsichord, Sunita Stanislow-harp, Eliav Lavi-theorbo, Baroque guitar, Alberto Fernandes-violone, Nadav Gaiman-percussion and Myrna Herzog-viol and schryari. (The latter is a strident-sounding 16th and 17th century double-reeded instrument used only in the military scenes of the opera.) The ensemble supported the singers articulately and entertained with vigor and eloquence.

Ensemble PHOENIX’ premiere of “Venus and Adonis – La Purpura de la Rosa” issued in the new concert season with a fresh and exciting event that brought many curious lovers of opera and Baroque music to the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. They were not disappointed! More performances of the opera will take place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa in December 2013.

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