We don't hear much early Italian baroque opera in these parts, but the Consortium Carissimi mounted a production of Pasquini's Il Tirinto over the weekend at the Ritz Theater in NE Minneapolis, and it was a smash. I have to confess, I'd never heard of this group before I read the listing in the Star-Tribune. To tell you the truth, I'd never heard of the composer or the opera, either. But such productions are almost invariably fun, and the slice of musical history being dished up, which fell somewhere along the flank between Handel and Monteverdi, made my mouth water.
An added selling point was the venue. The Ritz is a tiny neighborhood theater a half-block off University Avenue on 13th Street in a small commercial zone it shares with several restaurants, galleries, boutiques, a few bars, and a microbrewery. It's an unpretentiously arty area, and it retains an attractive vibe that was largely submerged in the north loop by the influx of big dollars a decade ago. The bare bones theater itself, which was refurbished in 2006, is intimate but not too musty, and there's free parking in a large municipal lot across the street.
The opera itself proved to be largely what I'd expected—a mix of conversational recitative and lyrical arias hung on a convoluted romantic plot. Alter the instrumentation a bit and it could be taken for church music. Without much trouble the arias could be turned into art songs. You're unlikely to find Bernardo Pasquini's name in any standard history of opera, but the contribution of the Roman school of which he was a part is described by one scholar as enlarging opera's "possibilities of expression by giving greater scope to pathos, grace, and humor."
Il Tirinto had grace and plenty of humor, though the pathos was largely striped away in the course of the many twists and turns of the plot.
Ah yes, the plot. Filandro, a nobleman from Crete, is raising his two children, Tirinto and Rosaura. Due to the dangerous political climate, he decides to send his son to the relative safety of Rome, but the ship is seized by pirates and one of them takes Tirinto as a slave. Filandro is bereft by the loss of his son and fears that he's drowned, but nevertheless circulates a letter at the ports where pirates sometimes resupply, seeking news of his son's fate. Tirinto somehow receives the letter, and years later he escapes from the pirates and proceeds to Lazio under the assumed name of Lucimoro. While living in Ariccia, in the hills just south of Rome, he becomes romantically involved with a young woman named Laurinda.
But Lucimoro eventually grows restless and returns to Crete to find his father, who has since then left for Rome, also under an assumed name. Four years of searching produce no results, though Lucimoro scores a success of sorts in Crete when he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Rosaura. He has no idea she's actually his sister.
Since her father's departure from Crete, Rosaura has been raised by her uncle, who doesn't want her to marry a "foreigner," and the uncle forces Lucimoro to leave the country. Before departing Lucimoro promises Rosaura that he'll return someday and marry her.
When Rosaura’s uncle dies, her father summons her to Ariccia, where he is now governor. In the mean time, her brother, having been exiled from Crete, also finds himself once again in Lazio. Worn out by travel and endless searching, he decides to make his home on Monte Cavo as caretaker of the Great Altar of Jupiter. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before he bumps into his first love, Laurinda, whom he had abandoned a decade earlier, and also his more recent flame Rosaura.
This is the point at which the opera begins. It isn't important to master the details of the back-story, however, because the plot exploits stock themes of the Commedia del Arte with which we're all familiar. Mistaken identities, love unexpressed, love abandoned, love unrequited, noble birth challenged. We've seen it in Goldoni and Grassi, Shakespeare and Moliere. In theatrical productions the wordplay stands out; in Commedia del Arte productions the characters become caricatures and the pratfalls tend to dominate. But in an opera, the lilt of the music ennobles the otherwise hackneyed course of the plot and allows us to pine and yearn again along with the characters, while also, perhaps, catching an occasional breeze from the sacred groves of Jupiter—breezes that still blow through the leafy hill town of Ariccia on occasion.
However, the humor of the traditional Commedia has not been altogether removed from the production. During the prologue, set in the Piazza Navona in Rome, some raffish characters discuss their plan to go up to the small town in the hills outside Rome to see the opera while street-vendors hawk their victuals nearby—mostly booze. And during a hilarious scene just after intermission, two men sit on a bench discussing the merits of the production so far, with which they're not too impressed.
And then there's the coarse old servant named Lisa who always seems to be on the spot, counseling the other characters while often making fun of them behind their backs. It's a "pants" role, and Gary Ruschman (who looks a lot like Bill Murray in drag) charges every scene he's in with ribald humor.
As for the other vocalists, they were uniformly solid and more, from the rich bass of Benjamin Sieverding to the plaintive mezzo of Christina Christiansen. The set—a few benches set among potted topiary trees—was perfectly adequate, and the orchestra in the "pit"—two violins, a basse viole, a violone, bass trombone, lute, harpsichord, and harp—were vigorously conducted from the cembalo by the production's music director, Alesssandro Quarta, who has been conducting similar productions of late Renaissance Roman opera with the Concerto Romano in Rome since 2006.
Aren't we lucky, to be sitting in the fourth row of a tiny theater watching these extraordinarily talented individuals stage an opera that hasn't been performed in maybe 350 years. It's a labor of love as well as art and research, and you could feel it in the air.