Arts & Events

Giovanni Porta’s IFIGENIA IN AULIDE: Ars Minerva Ventures into the 18th Century

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday December 07, 2018 - 02:00:00 PM

Having specialized in reviving long-lost 17th century Venetian operas, Céline Ricci’s Ars Minerva company now has revived a long-forgotten 18th century opera. Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide (1738) was given two performances November 30 and December 1 at ODC Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. Porta, Venetian by birth, was a popular composer of thirty operas, which were performed in the early 1700s throughout Italy, Germany, and England. However, only four of Porta’s operas remain extant. His Ifigenia in Aulide score was found in Dresden. Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide premiered in Munich during Carnival season in 1738, and as far as we know it has not been performed since until now.  

Sung in Italian with English supertitles by Joe McClinton, Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide is very much in the style of Handel’s Italian operas. Indeed, Handel produced one of Porta’s operas, Numitore, in 1720 at London’s Royal Academy of Music. As I have previously noted regarding Handel’s operas, the same could be said of Porta’s: the da capo structure imposes an ABA pattern that means we hear pretty much the same music three times in each and every musical number. This makes for very long operas and can get tedious. However, with sufficient variations offered in the B section, as is the case in Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, the da capo structure works reasonably well.  

Set to a libretto by noted Italian writer Apostolo Zeno, Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide retells the story told by Euripides and later retold by 17th century French tragedian Jean Racine. The Greeks were preparing to sail to Troy but were becalmed by contrary winds. Agamemnon consulted the oracle Calchas and was told that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis (Diana, in Italian). Only with this sacrifice will the Greeks be able to sail to conquer Troy.  

Céline Ricci, founder and artistic director of Ars Minerva, directed this semi-staged production. Using images projected on a backdrop instead of stage sets, Céline Ricci came up with an imaginative staging that involved seven hooded and masked figures who represented the Furies or Fates. As these Furies interacted with the various characters, they writhed, they whirled, and they encircled the victims caught up in their web. In short, this was an elaborately choreographed Ifigenia in Aulide, one that held our attention and emphasized the Greek notion of Nemesis. 

The cast was uniformly excellent. Soprano Aura Veruni was a sweet-voiced Iphigenia, whose aria at the close of Act 1 expressed her joy at the prospect of wedding her beloved Achilles. Later, in Act 3, Aura Veruni delivered a poignant farewell to her mother in the aria “Madre diletta, abbracciami” (“Beloved Mother, embrace me”). In the role of Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, soprano Shawnette Sulker was superb. In the dramatic trio in Act 3, Sulker’s repeated outbursts of the word “barbaro” (“barbarous”) were hurled at Agamemnon like lightning bolts. (Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz was a revelation as Agamemnon. She sang with vigor and sensitivity, vocally conveying the torments of this father seemingly compelled by the gods to sacrifice his own beloved daughter. As Achilles, mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci was outstanding. Her Act 1, scene 2 aria “Asia tremi, Argos festeggi” (“Asia tremble, Argos rejoice”), was delivered with superb vocal technique as she negotiated this music’s dramatic vocal acrobatics. Further, Céline Ricci’s farewell to Iphigenia, “Sposa, addio” (“Farewell, my bride”) near the opera’s end, was movingly sung as Achilles vowed to save Iphigenia from the sacrificial pyre. 

In a subplot, Elisena, captured by Achilles as he took Lesbos, falls unhappily in love with her captor. Soprano Cara Gabrielson sang beautifully as Elisena in a role that sashays back and forth between love, vengeance, jealousy and pity. Countertenor Matheus Coura was excellent as the much put-upon Teucer (Teucro, in Italian). Tenor Kevin Gino was a vivid Ulysses, singing grandly and dramatically portraying the male chauvinism of the Greek warriors. Baritone Spencer Dodd ably sang the minor role of Arcade. Derek Tam conducted a chamber orchestra from the harpsichord, and he deftly kept the opera moving forward over its full three-hour stretch. Oh, and by the way, Agamemnon’s daughter doesn’t die at the end of the opera. Elisena takes her place, for it turns out that her real name also happens to be Iphigenia, so her sacrifice is accepted by the gods, and the Greeks rejoice as they prepare to set sail for Troy amid suddenly favorable winds.