Last weekend I saw another opera production by Ars Minerva, Ifigenia in Aulide. I saw Circe a while back and it blew my mind! Ifigenia did not disappoint as with minimal staging and what must have been a tiny budget (for an opera) Ars Minerva was absolutely brilliant. It was like a mindfuck gem of genderbent baroque. If you know me you know those words are like catnip to a cat! Lots of operas have some sort of Furious Woman number (what my friend Lisa called a “rage aria”) but this was like one giant long rage aria. Like Hothead Paisan from 1738 came to visit. (You realize if we have any call to be Hothead nowadays, some chick from Italy in 1738, or Greece in 408 B.C., has several orders of magnitude more reason.) The music was composed by Giovanni Porta and the libretto by Apostolo Zeno. (Of course, I read about them on Wikipedia from the program notes before the show. Thank you Wikipedia!) I am not going to perfectly remember things, but here is a stab at a synopsis.
First of all there was an ominous “chorus” of people on stage a lot of the time in purple satin hooded robes and creepy tragedy masks. They also made me think of the kodama from Spirited Away. They were characters, chorus, props, and sort of the zeitgeist, very well done. I’ll say more about them in a moment!
We encounter Elisena who has been captured by Achille in battle (in either Lesbos or Thessaly, but I never got that quite straight.) She is now enslaved and worried about her fate. If she ever finds out her real identity she will DIE. Teucro loves her and she loves Achille.
I enjoyed the costumes and makeup very much by the way – each character was dressed in a distinctive color combo of velvet, some with a sort of tinfoil (but much classier) hats with very lovely styling — the warriors Achille and Agamennone with helmets and the Queen and Princess with more Lothlorien style elegant crowns. Ifigenia in particular had a cool Isis/Hathor crescent moon on top of her Galadriel headdress, kinda giving the impression of Cretan horns or a Minoan statue. Very beautiful! Ulysses and Teucro strode around in combat boots. Elisena had a super sexy red dress and no crown. They had unusual & gorgeous cyberpunk style makeup that matched their outfits – big asymmetrical swoops and hash marks accentuating cheekbones or facial lines – and Elisena’s face smudged in red like she was both enraged and had been running around like a maenid in the woods drinking blood. OK, now you have the fashion picture!
Achilles shows up and sings to Elisena about how he loves Ifigenia and is going to marry her. Omg, awkward. Elisena then gets a damn good rage aria! She was going full tilt about how she would sacrifice herself on the altar in a blaze of bloody glory rather than watch her beloved Achille marry stuck up Ifigenia! Foreshadowing much?!
Actually, I wish I had the libretto and translation. By the middle of the opera I was picking up the Italian a lot better and thinking of how I would translate it myself. (I love to do songs and, with this sort of opera, half the words are going to be glory, sigh, lament, beloved, and weep, so you’re basically half done from the get-go.) The translation grew on me towards Act 3 and I thought it had some amazing moments so I’d like to read through it with more time and a dictionary and grammar at hand.
Ulyses then struts around explaining to Agamennone that they had to sacrifice Ifigenia their beloved daughter. The sacrifice for fair winds must be a princess of the blood of Helen! (GEE I WONDER WHAT ELISENA’S SECRET IDENTITY IS.) He is challenging Agamennone’s masculinity and leadership and sense of duty to the Greeks and (male) honor as he tries to amp him up and fails.
Ifigenia dances around like a modern dance music box ballerina sweetly singing of her innocent love and how being a dutiful daughter means her loving parents picked a good husband for her who is a hero and who she luckily came to fall in love with. Yay she is going to be a happy bride etc.
I forgot in my comments on the fashion and headdresses to mention the subtle brilliance of how Achille had her hair (up in a top-and-back ponytail, like the decoration on a greek helmet in itself!) There were lots of little details like this in the production that made me so happy. (ACHILLE WAS SO BRILLIANT OMG and you could tell she was running everything and the genius behind it all – from her mastery of the entire thing)
I think at this point Ifigenia has heard a rumor that Achille is actually going to marry Elisena instead of her. She has a rage aria and goes off in a huff. (Or maybe this was later?)
Achille and Elisena have a scene. He beats her up and it is quite horrible. The production somehow makes it clear that the whole opera is about toxic masculinity! Achille somehow did the most Liquid Sky level authentically horrible lesbian rape scene I’ve ever seen while singing GLORIOUSLY at the top of her lungs, manhandling Elisena, throwing her around by the hair, and tracing down her body with swordpoint. (!!!!!!!!!!)
Containing myself with difficulty . . .
Elisena is now super, super pissed. Bloody rage is sung. Her face goes through another 50 levels of insane and vengeful. I have to suppress the urge to cheer for her beautiful rage. She orders Teucro to go disrupt the wedding. Teucro, throughout, gives the impression of a smirking, drippy, creepy harasser, basically in a virtual fedora, oozing “m’lady” at the Renaissance Festival right before he mansplains to you why you should totally enjoy him stalking you. It made Elisena’s rage even better.
Ulises comes back to infuse Agamennone with more toxic masculinity. He must show his wife and daughter what’s what! While singing, Ulises threatens the purple robed masked chorus, grabs one, and beats (her) up. Just to give Agamennone a little example of the proper manly warrior king way to behave.
Agamennone then abuses Klytemnestra, singing Obey me!
Klytemnestra then has like, infinite rage arias and reprises of her rage!!! Oh, she’s pissed!
Angstamennone has some more nail biting freakouts! I think he changes his mind like 3 times about whether to send his wife and daughter home, or what.
Ifigenia desperately hopes it is all a lie. SHe offers herself to Agamennone while Klytemnestra continues to rage and says in despair that only death is left to her. I can’t remember their exact works but the trio (what do you call it when it is a duet but 3 people singing at once in counterpoint?) was really beautiful and moving. Agamennon freaking out with guilt, Ifigenia saying she would kiss the beloved hand that killed her, Klytemnestra giving epic side eye to her abusive murderous husband who cares more for war and its honors and duties than for his family.
I kind of lose the thread here, but Elisena runs off to tell the troops in the camp about this horrible plan to sacrifice Ifigenia. Achille sits on a rock with Ifigenia for their romantic duet. Ulises and Achille face off with swords! “A armi!!!” Achille slayed me with her singing again.
At several points when there is tension – like with Ulises arguing with Agamennone – or Klytemnestra and Ifigenia singing about duty and love – The chorus in their fated robes grab onto someone in the throes of their dilemma & sway with them – making me think of all the forces of culture and custom and public opinion operating to fuel their moral decisions. It was done so perfectly! Holding them back, seemingly sympathetic or supportive at times, but then entangling them in terrible complexity!
Klytemnestra and Ifigenia get another amazing duet where as they reach towards each other singing of their mother and daughter love, they are torn apart by the chorus at this point!
Elisena sings of her sudden pity for Ifigenia who is actually very noble in her willingness to be sacrificed for the common good (well, for … for someone’s good)
I think Klytemnestra had like 5 more rage arias in here. I loved her singing so much. She could just keep going forever, a beautiful voice, and her acting was great, giving the impression of someone super delicate, fierce, and tough all at once.
Then something happens offstage. Ulises runs in reporting something about how fierce Death has arrived for Ifigenia. BUT as you may suspect Elisena’s secret identity is that she is Helen’s secret daughter from another marriage and was originally named Ifigenia too. And she has just bloodily driven a dagger into her heart on the altar as the sacrifice. We see her at center stage kneeling with her head swathed in red gauze by the purple-robed Fates. Ifigenia and Achille are happily married. Everyone (except Elisena) sings a happy love song but you can cherish the rage in your heart for all the despairing girls who cut themselves you have ever known, because you know Klytemnestra is going to stab SOMEONE whose name starts with an A some years later no matter what ironic syrup is pouring from her mouth.
I can’t really speak to the excellence of the singing or music but I loved it a lot. The musicians were fabulous, I loved the theorbo & cello, harpischord also, and several times (especially with Achille, Klytemnestra, and sometimes Agamennone — and with Ifigenia’s song to her mother — Madre delitta, abraccia mi!) I would get the head to toe shivers involuntarily from the beauty and inevitability of the singing, or how the music all came together.
I also don’t know how the opera was originally intended to be performed but figured some of the parts played by women were meant to be sung by castrati. It really came out well. I wish this opera were running much longer so I could persuade everyone I know in town to go see it! Or that there were a video of it! Also, I have a total crush on Céline Ricci now as I picture her poking around in dusty music library basements (or the equivalent — like i like to do with poetry anthologies) and finding this stuff, seeing the potential in it, and making it real!