Company tackles old works


Ignoti Dei Opera is without a home but not without a fresh vision


August 31, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A lot of opera fans seem to think the genre started with Mozart and ended with Puccini, although an enormous amount of repertoire preceded the former and followed the latter.

Around here, we don't get enough exposure to either very early or very contemporary operas, but the recent arrival of a young company promises to help rectify one of those slights.

Ignoti Dei Opera, which takes its name from an ancient professional troupe, was founded by Timothy Nelson, who serves as artistic and managing director. He's one of several current or former Peabody Institute students involved in this enterprise, which is billed as an "itinerant company," because it doesn't have a fixed base.

"I think each performance space should match the look of each production, so we don't plan to have a firm home," Nelson says. "Also, it has always been my dream to run a professional touring company."

An inaugural production of two English baroque operas was given last winter in a local church; this weekend, the group will be at the Theatre Project to present La Calisto, by one of the earliest and most important composers in the history of opera, Francesco Cavalli.

The work did not enjoy a particular success at its premiere in Venice in 1651, but it was welcomed as a masterpiece when it re-emerged in 1975 in an edition of the score prepared by Raymond Leppard. "We have reconstructed a more authentic score from Cavalli's manuscript," Nelson says. "Our company tries to combine musicianship, scholarship and a fresh approach to opera staging."

La Calisto is valued for its rich score and diverting plot. That plot concerns a favorite topic of early operas - mythological gods and goddesses - though with enough twists and humanizing elements to engage modern-day audiences.

At the center of the story is a Diana-worshipping nymph sworn to just say no to sex. She isn't counting on the arrival of Diana herself - actually Jove in disguise - and the possibility of some pre-Defense of Marriage Act pairing. Meanwhile, the real Diana, also a professed abstainer from fleshly pursuits, is enamored of a shepherd. Jove's wife, Juno, gets so annoyed with her husband's philandering that she turns the nymph into a bear, who is then turned by Jove into the Ursa Major constellation. Those wild and wacky deities.

As is so often the case in opera, the music elevates all of this to a level of great lyrical art, with passages of exceptional drama and comedy.

Ignoti Dei Opera's cast includes Bonnie McNaughton in the title role and baritone Ryan de Ryke as Jove (and, in drag, the fake Diana). Adam Pearl is the music director.

To enhance the revival of historic operas, the company offers an important sonic component - an orchestra of period instruments, featuring players from the Baltimore/D.C. area. For the Cavalli production, the accompanying forces include two violins, two viols, two harpsichords, organ, two lutes, baroque guitar and theorbo (a bass lute).

Such an orchestra - not to mention cast and scenery - never comes cheap. "I am, as it stands now, funding the productions," Nelson says, "until we can build a stable donor base - soon I hope."

Where the company will turn up after this production is not yet known, but Nelson has a good idea of what he'd like to explore next - a gem from the French baroque, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David and Jonathan.

"Our plans are to create [an] early-opera institute next summer which would provide an opportunity for young singers interested in early music to perform," Nelson says. "Singers would converge on the Baltimore area, being housed by host families, and, in a month, mount a fully staged production."

Such an enterprise could add considerably to Baltimore's already active opera scene. It will be interesting to see and hear how Ignoti Dei Opera develops.

Ignoti Dei Opera's production of Cavalli's La Calisto will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors. Call 410-752-8558. For more information, visit www.kmvisions. com/lacalisto.

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