Review: In a Dark Forest, Song and Dance Beam Light

Posted February 4, 2018 4:18 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The spirit behind Opera Lafayette’s new double bill is so enterprising that you applaud the idea as much as the achievement. Both works are Baroque; both are set in a dark forest; both take their stories from the 16th-century Italian poet Torquato Tasso. Opera Lafayette, a company based in Washington, plays both pieces with period instruments. The program — half opera, half dance-drama — reached the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in Manhattan on Friday night.

The first work is Act 1 of Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1723 opera “Erminia" (the only act that survives); the second is a dance drama, Francesco Geminiani’s “La Forêt enchantée” (“The Enchanted Forest,” 1754/1761). The enterprise is made bolder by giving the ballet to Kalanidhi Dance, a troupe that performs the classical Indian genre of Kuchipudi, choreographed by Anuradha Nehru. Richard Ouellette’s décor, with a central pavilion amid a grove, serves for both productions, with slight emendations.

This Lafayette-Kalanidhi collaboration is a sequel to their 2013 work on Félicien David’s opéra-comique “Lalla Rookh” (1862), a drama set in India. In August 2017, some of the Kalanidhi “Lalla Rookh” scenes (set to taped music) were brought to New York under the aegis of the Erasing Borders festival of Indian dance; I loved those, especially Nehru’s use of tableaus that, swaying as if in the wind, evoked several layers of Orientalism.

In the new “Forêt” staging, however, nothing in the Kalanidhi performance matched the pulsating vigor of the score. Tasso’s characters are Christians and Muslims in a fictional version of the Crusades; it was perfectly fine to translate them, as here, into Mughals and Hindi Marathas. But the music kept charging on, rattling through five acts in less than an hour, whereas Nehru’s choreography, seldom connected to the music’s strong meters, concentrated on the picturesque elements. You saw the Maratha spirits and rulers, the Mughal leader and warriors — costumes, by Meriem Bahri, were gorgeous and evocative — but this was storytelling without force; you didn’t sense any of the best aspects of Kuchipudi genre.

The Scarlatti “Erminia” — a tale of love, jealousy and disguise, with shepherds real and counterfeit — was a very different kettle of fish. The orchestra here was larger, with a more striking assortment of color, but much of the music’s power was concentrated in its four solo voices: mezzo-sopranos Erminia (Julia Dawson) and Tancredi (Allegra De Vita), bass Pastore (André Courville) and tenor Polidoro (Asitha Tennekoon). In arias, the coloratura writing is often intense, so that — as in some Handel operas, only more so — each character plunges at once into a vortex of emotion conveyed by the knots and chains of the rapid-moving vocal line.

Thanks to the conductor Ryan Brown and the four singers, the recitatives between the set pieces stayed suspenseful; the act took us through quite a spectrum. At moments, admittedly, the immediate flare-ups of temperament in the succession of arias become formulaic. Virtuoso emotional display seems more crucial than character or narrative tension. But it’s also possible that Scarlatti wanted a yet greater range of tone (absurdity, humor) than Lafayette gave us.

The emotionalism became more (or less) three-dimensional according to who was singing. Dawson, beautiful in face and voice, was commanding, conflicted, touching as Erminia. De Vita, in the smaller male role of Tancredi, proved yet more remarkable, with incisive diction: Her vocalism burns like a dark flame. It was a pleasure to hear the accomplishment of Courville and Tennekoon; but their vocal characters remained far sketchier and less engrossing.

How often does New York hear music by either Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico) or Geminiani? I cherish the Lafayette impulse to fill a gap in our knowledge. Notwithstanding more than 40 years of attending both opera and dance, this was the first theatrical performance I had heard of music by either composer. Now I’ll seek out more of both.