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In her note recounting the genesis of the partnership between Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque that resulted in the first staging of the Baroque opera Idaspe since 1730, Quantum artistic director Karla Boos explains that she originally set out to produce Vivaldi’s Bajazet after hearing Vivica Genaux’s recording of an aria supposedly from that opera called “Qual Guerriero in campo armato.” It turns out, however, that this aria was actually composed by Riccardo Broschi for his opera Idaspe, and was originally sung by Broschi’s brother, the celebrity castrato singer Farinelli; Vivaldi “borrowed” the aria for Bajazet. Where Bajazet is merely “obscure,” Idaspe was all but lost to time (only a manuscript version of the score existed); its resurrection has been a pandemic era labor of love between director-writer Claire van Kampen and Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley.

From a musical perspective alone, it was an effort well worth making. The production of Idaspe at the Byham (this week only, until October 15) offers an experience of musicianship that is sublime. Soprano Vivica Genaux plays Dario, the role originally written for Farinelli, who was famous for both his vocal range (he could apparently dive down to an F below middle C and soar up to two octaves above middle C) and his vocal agility. Genaux is more than up to the challenge: her performances of “Qual Guerriero” (which closes the opera’s first act) and the equally challenging “Ombra fedele anch’io” showcase her breathtaking virtuosity and her vocal athleticism. She floats atop the orchestra on a complex – dare I say baroque? – and rapid line of melismas, trills, and ornamentations, and seems to be all of the instruments in turn, from violin to cello to flute, all the while also building and conveying the emotional arc of the scenes in which these arias appear, in both cases scenes of anguish, loss, and despair. 

Vivica Genaux as Dario. Photo by Jason Snyder, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The rest of the vocalists in the cast are equally impressive. Countertenor John Holiday, who plays Idaspe, has a clear, ringing voice with incredible range; at one point he sings a gorgeous aria to his beloved Berenice while lying on his side, and the moment is as heartbreaking in its emotional effect as it is astonishing for the technical ability he displays. Soprano Pascale Beaudin reaches heights of delicate and lilting lyricism as Berenice; mezzo soprano Zoie Reams brings a warm, plummy voice and a commanding stage presence to her portrayal of Dario’s love interest Mandane. Tenor Karim Sulayman, who plays Artaserse, the oppressive Boss of the Persians, sings two love arias with a passion and sensitivity that melt your soul; he has a sweet, velvety voice that belies his character’s hard exterior. Countertenor Wei En Chan and mezzo soprano Shannon Delijani bring their splendid, clear, and technically adept voices into the mix as Ircano and Arbace, loyal followers to Dario and Artaserse, respectively: Chan in particular has a dazzling aria in the first act that shows off his incredible vocal range as well as his acting chops.

Under Daniel Nesta Curtis’s conducting, the Chatham Baroque orchestra is at the top of its game: the music is clean and precise, and you can hear every layer of the intricate, delicate music. The balance of voices and instruments is masterful, integrating the vocal lines and the instrumental lines into a harmonious whole. If you have never understood what is exciting and special about baroque music, you will after experiencing this production: the musicians here capture the full range of melodic lines and emotional moods of the genre. 

L to R: Pascale Beaudin and Karim Sulayman. Photo by Narelle Sissons.

The production is also visually arresting. Narelle Sissons’s contemporary, abstract scenic design is complemented by Ilona Somogyi’s stylish, 60s-adjacent costuming; both glow under the jewel tones of Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting design. Choreographer Antonia Franceschi keeps the world of the opera alive with movement, often setting staccato modern dance against the baroque music in an intriguing and effective juxtaposition. The dancers sometimes function as characters within the scene; at other times it’s as if they are an embodiment of the singing character’s imagination, dancing out their deepest desires or darkest fears. Some of the dancers are also gymnasts and acrobats – one spectacular scene even features two of the dancers performing on aerial silks.

You may have noticed that I have not written anything yet about this opera’s story. I’m not sure I can. The plot mainly revolves around Dario and Idaspe and their attempts to free Mandane and Berenice from Artaserse, who has kidnapped them. But the story is convoluted and hard to follow. There is a whole complex back story that gets delivered in a quick flash of a supertitle; then, before we’ve even fully captured Dario and Idaspe’s names, they take on assumed names, both of which start with the letter “A,” in order to cross into the enemy’s territory, so right off the bat we’re perplexed by character names; and on top of that there are two other characters whose names also start with “A,” so that’s an added cognitive load; and then, as the story develops, the characters’ motives and alliances seem to shift suddenly and without explanation, while the characters’ actions also produce weird and inexplicable reactions. In addition, the production itself seems determined to keep its audience from getting much of the story: there is no plot synopsis provided in the program and large chunks of the text go untranslated in the supertitles, including the entirety of some of the recitatives, where opera normally delivers much of its plot development. As a result, the story is confusing and lacking in coherence, and while the design elements and choreography add visual interest to the world of the opera, they primarily function to further complicate rather than streamline its storytelling.

But with music this beautiful and this transporting, maybe you don’t need to care whether or not you understand the story. I’m as much a narrative junkie as any one I know, but on opening night there were times when I happily gave up trying to make sense of the action and simply surrendered to its transcendentally glorious music.