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Old-school Opera

Musica Angelica digs up the bones of opera erectus

The following article appeared in the July 3, 1998 issue of OC Weekly:

The word opera arouses strong impressions. Like wasted, consumptive heroines wearing size 30 tents and blood-soaked heroes singing themselves to death for an hour; heldentenors and coloratura sopranos with armor lungs reaching for the Holy Grail of the high C; the pathetic irony of Cher (in "Moonstruck") shedding a tear at "La Boheme"; the weird circus of The Three Stooges (Luciano, Placido and Curley Jose).

If that’s what comes to mind, you’re thinking of big-boned, breast-plated opera - the overblown, epic-scaled by-product of 19th-century Romantic excess. But opera’s beginnings back in the 16th century were a lot more modest and next Wednesday at the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival, members of the Early Music performing group Musica Angelica will dig up the bones of opera erectus and show how - at a time when emasculated choirboys sang praise to the Virgin in 12-part counterpoint - the earliest Baroque composers were simplifying.

“What they really were after in the late Renaissance,” says Musica Angelica director Michael Eagan, “was that a single singer should be expressing the affect or emotion of the text as perfectly as possible. That’s not at all what was happening in the 16th century, where composers loved as many voices as they could possibly afford and a big rich sound.

“The first opera composers were trying to create emotional communication one-to-one, to recreate their idea of what music was by rediscovering what they thought the ancient Greeks - who were their inspiration - thought about it.”

To keep it intimate, four Musica Angelica players will offer some of the earliest examples of operatic and instrumental music to come out of Florence and Venice in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Eagan on lute, Mark Chatfield (viola da gamba), Inga LaRose (recorder) and tenor Daniel Plaster do music by little-known names like Giulio Caccini, Pier Francesco Cavalli, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Dario Castello and Michelangelo Galilei (Galileo’s brother) as well as the better known Claudio Monteverdi.

“We very much wanted to create a performing entity that was focused around our particular instruments,” says Eagan, who co-founded Musica Angelica six years ago with Chatfield. “We formed a continuo section together, the two of us on lute and viol/cq/to be the center of a baroque orchestra - a really world-class baroque orchestra in the Southland.”

Demand for their services has been big. Last month, an expanded Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra did pit duty in Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s hallucinogenic rendition of Henry Purcell’s La Indian Queen for Long Beach Opera. And their Seal Beach date is just a warm-up for concerts later this month at the Getty Center in L.A. featuring early opera music from the so-called house of Bardi.

Like all good populist revolutions, the opera movement was started by a ring of artists and intellectuals who met regularly in the home of a rich, enlightened patron. It was the 1580s, and the host was a Florentine count named Giovanni Bardi. In his social circle (or camerata) were the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and a big-haired singer named Jacopo Peri (who together wrote the first opera, Dafne, now lost); Peri’s number one rival, Giulio Caccini, who lost by a whisker the race to be the father of opera; and musician/writer Vincenzo Galilei, who was later eclipsed by his son Galileo.

“Vincenzo was a member of the original Bardi camerata,” says Eagan, “and he was a pioneer in several ways. He advocated equal temperament, which was pretty revolutionary at the time. His son Galileo was pretty successful until he got thrown out of the Church. His other son Michelangelo was a ne’er-do-well lute player. Galileo went around trying to help him get jobs.”

In those years before and after 1600, while the Earth was teetering off its point at the center of the universe, Italy was being knocked from its rightful place as the center of Europe. Aced out in the New World by the Atlantic powers, boxed in by the Spanish and Turks, its Church revenues strangulated by the Lutheran Reformation, Italy’s city-states were reduced to juiceless political impotence.

But culturally, Italy’s boot was kicking ass. Europe’s greatest minds included the defrocked physicist Galileo, the heretic philosopher Bruno (who went out in a blaze of glory for envisioning an infinite universe with infinite worlds), the lunatic poet Tasso, the sensual sculptor Bernini, the homicidal painter Caravaggio and the master composer Monteverdi. It was in that climate that opera was born.

“We’re doing a set of excerpts from the first great operatic masterpiece written by Monteverdi in 1607, Orfeo,” Eagan says. “Most of that is recitative in the new style that’s very lyrical and dramatic and gripping. When Orfeo realizes that Eurydice has died and been taken away to the underworld, he can’t understand what’s happened to him. It’s not a melody anymore. It’s just a musical expression of someone who is absolutely stunned with grief, and by the end of his speech, he’s determined to go get her back. The music is just of dramatic power essentially unheard of before in music history.”

In his day, Monteverdi’s Venice was the cosmopolitan sex pit of Veronica Franco and "Dangerous Beauty." So it shouldn’t surprise that his music for the politically incorrect Biblical text "Nigra sum" (“I’m Black but comely”) is enormously sexy. “It’s one of the Song of Psalms - about the slave and King Solomon,” says Eagan. “It’s really sensual and erotic. Monteverdi made an intense erotic setting, which he put in the middle of the Vespers.”

We’d tell you that the concert should be a great educational primer on early opera, but Eagan flips out at any mention of the E-word. “Boy, I wouldn’t write that,” he says. “That word, in our day and age, has a negative connotation. In association with a concert, people are gonna think, ‘Oh, let’s not go. We’re not gonna have any fun.’”

He likes the F-word better.

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