Inside the St. Johannes Lutheran Church on a quiet corner in Charleston’s French Quarter, two female voices fill the sanctuary. Accompanied by a lone piano, the sopranos’ voices rise in and out, their faces lit by the afternoon sunlight cutting through the stained glass. With just a few weeks remaining before the U.S. premiere of a new production of Vivaldi’s Farnace — conducted by David Bates, directed by Garry Hynes, and starring Spoleto darling, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo — performers excitedly rush from room to room inside the church’s other rehearsal spaces. The sanctuary, though, is empty — except for these two voices soon to be joined, but for a moment, by another. As the sopranos fade, a somber male voice takes the melody briefly before leaving behind a short silence broken only by the shuffle of sheet music pages turning.
For director Garry Hynes, her work on Farnace began with a message from Spoleto general director Nigel Redden, who suggested she oversee a new production of the 18th century opera to premiere at the festival. Hynes recalls the first opera she ever saw, a 1986 production of Handel’s Xerxes directed by Nicholas Hytner. Since that evening more than 30 years ago, Hynes has been drawn to the music. So when Redden presented the idea of Hynes overseeing a new production of Vivaldi’s opera, Hynes’ curiosity was piqued. After listening to Farnace, she decided she’d like to spend some time with the opera.
Originally performed in 1727 before being revised and revived years later, Farnace tells the story of the invasion of the kingdom of Pontus by a Roman force. Faced with defeat, Farnace, the ruler of Pontus, calls on his wife to murder their son and herself rather than fall into the hands of Pompeo, the leader of the Roman army. Farnace’s mother-in-law, Berenice, colludes against him with the invaders, and the opera also finds Farnace’s sister seduced by a Roman.
Hynes says the main challenge of bringing the production to life has been ensuring that the audience is able to understand what’s at stake for the characters. Torn between familial loyalty and self-preservation, the opera provides a personal perspective on the ravages of war.
“It’s foolish, I think, to ascribe contemporary psychology to something that was written in the early 18th century, but the overall arc of the thing is the fact that the personal lives — the child, the husband, the wife — are under threat for reasons of battle and superiority. The opening scene of the play sees a man ask his wife to kill their son and herself in order to not be defeated, in order to avoid the ignominy of defeat,” says Hynes. “That is a terrible thing. Then, the mother of the wife also wants to see her grandson dead because of something that her son-in-law did. So we see these people who are entirely distorted in what should be natural reactions of intimacy and love by virtue of war and territory.”
Speaking in a small room tucked away in St. Johannes Church, the sound of rehearsals for Farnace bleed through the walls as Hynes discusses the production. Performers warm up by joining together in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” as they await the director, set to tackle the challenge before them, the opportunity to present a story that’s almost 300 years old, but somehow still relevant.
“To me, that story couldn’t be more contemporary. I mean, when we see the floods of refugees, when we see the destruction of Aleppo from a once beautiful Middle Eastern city to the ruins that it is now, the destruction of families, the destruction of relationships, of lives, you’re seeing exactly what this story is about,” says Hynes. “When you destroy a city, whether 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago, or today, no matter what part of the world it’s in, ruins look much the same, and in those ruins are people’s lives.”
Hynes is reluctant to peg this production of Farnace or the opera itself as some commentary on modern war and politics. She just understands that good art is incapable of escaping these connections and civilization continues to fall into the same traps century after century. At the same time, art at its best illuminates the truths that surround the uglier aspects of humanity, the beauty that hides around every street corner and peers through the rubble.
“Art is supposed to help us understand things that are hard, to help us appreciate things. At its best, good art should remind us of the extraordinary privilege that it is to be alive,” says Hynes. “I’m not saying we should attend the opera because it’s a civics lesson … But when you accompany these images with the music and the extraordinary achievements of the human voice, it does remind you of the preciousness of life and the preciousness of each individual.”