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Old-School Opera

Peabody Takes on the Challenge of Egisto

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Peabody Chamber Opera

By Eileen Murphy | Posted

Lovers are kidnapped by pirates and sent to separate islands. They toil apart for a year and then escape their captors. They try to reunite—suffering rejection, regret, and madness—and along the way become playthings for mythological deities.

What could this be? Too intellectual for television, too sexual for children's programming, too tame for the big screen. So what's left? Opera, of course.

This week the Peabody Chamber Opera presents Egisto by Francesco Cavalli. As co-directors, Roger Brunyate (the company's artistic director) and Webb Wiggins (who chairs the Peabody Conservatory's early-music department) have their hands full with this 17th-century work, and it's not the fantastic plot line that's been giving them fits since rehearsals began in mid-January. The two are wrestling with the freedom and the liabilities of a baroque score, one that resembles jazz improvisation more than straight orchestration.

From the beginning, staging Egisto has posed a challenge. Brunyate worked from the original manuscripts, two of which survive from the opera's first performances in 1643. The manuscripts offer the simplest musical notation possible: a vocal part and a bass part. The bass part often consists of a single note, giving the musician the freedom and responsibility of interpretation. To compound the burden, the company is performing on period-appropriate baroque instruments—harpsichord, lute, etc.—that have never been known for their dynamic, interpretive abilities.

"This type of playing has been the most fearful for me," Wiggins says. "There are so many possibilities of what you can do."

Wiggins and Brunyate are working with student performers, so they started from scratch, retraining the vocalists and instrumentalists to work in the style of Italianate 17th-century opera. That means teaching everyone to work softer—early opera houses were small, and the instruments projected less volume. The singers also are forced to focus on vocal flexibility, to vary speed of delivery and ornamentation rather than belt it out. With Egisto, the text is sung to be understood, since early opera audiences spoke the language of the text. The vocalists have to concentrate on nailing all of the consonants—rather than drawing out the vowels—to deliver an emotional punch.

That burdens the instrumentalists with conveying more of the story's emotions, delivering a greater percentage of the opera's highs and lows than contemporary audiences have come to expect.

"Most of what is done narratively you recognize as normal," Brunyate says, but "when emotion needs to be heightened, music takes control of the pulse, rather than the [singing] performer."

This arrangement led Wiggins and Brunyate to bring the vocalists and instrumentalists together much earlier in the rehearsal process than the directors would have done with a later opera. Brunyate says his ultimate goal in working in this style is for "the music and drama to evolve together, to make them sound like they could go no other way, even though we have many possibilities." He likens the creative journey to working with a composer and creating a new work: "All of the interpretative decisions that are involved in making music and drama interact can be made on the spot."

If all of this sounds complicated, it is. A week before the performance, Wiggins bemoans the short amount of time left to perfect the piece. "I would love to have two weeks of musical rehearsal now that we have some concept, but that never happens," he says.

Amidst all of this, Brunyate is also honing the singers' acting, focusing on staging and other aspects of performance. It's not just about hitting the right notes. "That's not a period gesture," he scolds a performer during an afternoon rehearsal. "Look a little bit more lascivious," he instructs another, prompting giggles.

Like many operas, Egisto requires its actors to court ridiculousness—there are the requisite drag characters who, according to Brunyate, "speak in a rather ribald way about love and sex." But there's also a full range of emotion in the opera, from the giddy warmth of new love to the ache of rejection to the softening effect of regret.

Egisto was one of the most successful operas of its time, and after languishing in obscurity for a few centuries, Cavalli's works enjoyed a comeback in the late 1960s, when Raymond Leppard created new musical editions to be conducted for modern orchestras. The Peabody production takes the opera back to its roots, however, allowing contemporary audiences to witness the form without the show-stopping arias and straight-to-CD hummable tunes.

Even the plot delivers more substance than modern audiences might expect. The story "seems a little simplistic at first, but I realized it wasn't," Brunyate says. "There are little hints about the back story, discoveries that made it much more than just the shuffling of cards. [It] deals with real feelings, questions of honor and morality, which I find quite interesting."

The Peabody Chamber Opera performs Egisto at 8 P.M. Feb. 23-24 at Friedberg Hall, Peabody Conservatory. Tickets are $16. Call (410) 659-8124 for more information.

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