Naples, 1652.

Venice, 1653. 

These are the only two performances of a little-known opera by the 17th century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli entitled Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona — though the veracity of the Venice performance is under dispute. The next performance? Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, 2015.

So how does a rare 350-year-old opera become suddenly revived? According to conductor Aaron Carpenè, Veremonda was suggested by Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden two years ago as an intriguing possibility for the yearly festival. It is a project fit for Carpenè, a musician and scholar who specializes in early music, particularly 16th and 17th century Italian works on harpsichord and organ.

Upon researching the opera, Carpenè — never shy about experimenting with lesser-known works — excitedly took it on. “It’s an undiscovered diamond,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting and a huge honor. [Veremonda] is a little bit off the mainstream, and I am glad that this work is opening up to a wider audience.”

As a 17th century Baroque work with a provocative libretto, Veremonda is different from many more popular operas. Set in the kingdom of Granada, Alfonso, king of Aragon, plots to conquer Gibraltar, yet his general Delio secretly falls in love with the enemy Gibraltan queen, Zelemina. Simultaneously, Alfonso’s wife and queen of Aragon, Veremonda, surreptitiously amasses an army of Amazon warriors to take over Gibraltar herself. The opera is not afraid to explore the dark side of human emotions, including desire and betrayal, while the eponymous lead female character is a much stronger one than is usually seen in other popular operas, like La Bohème or La Traviata

With its contrast to popular classical operas as well as its status as a virtually unknown piece, Veremonda seemed like an exciting work for Carpenè, who has always been interested in integrating new elements into opera. For instance, his experimental Opera Bhutan project incorporated traditional Bhutanese music into George Friedrich Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

Carpenè takes the same creative license in Veremonda. When researching the original score, he discovered a section that announced a “Dance of the Bulls” would now begin; however, the music for such a part didn’t exist. “[I thought] it would be a shame not to have this dance,” Carpenè says. So he worked with contemporary Italian choreographer Pierluigi Vanelli to create a dance set to music by Cavalli’s contemporary, composer Andrea Falconieri. 

Carpenè’s inventiveness facilitated the process of adapting this work to its contemporary audience. With Cavalli’s Italian text rife with witty puns and double-entendres, Carpenè worked with the opera’s director Stefano Vizioli to devise ways to best convey the cheeky nature of the work. Carpenè had to be rather creative in order to translate certain textual elements, including a moment where the Italian word fallo connotes both a mistake — its literal translation—and the word phallus. “Through staging, we’re able to convey some saucier moments,” Carpenè says.

Veremonda features an impressive cast, with many of the singers appearing at Spoleto for the first time. Vivica Genaux, a celebrated mezzo-soprano based in Europe who will be singing the part of Queen Veremonda, embraces the chance to play the lead role, a character she sees as fundamentally stronger than others in later operas.  

“In 19th century opera, women are seen more as wilting flowers, pretty weak and vulnerable,” she says. “I hated those characters. Even vocally they didn’t suit me.” After singing more mezzo-soprano roles in various Baroque works, she discovered that these women were more dynamic. “They contain stronger women who are not afraid to go out and get what they want. There are some amazingly powerful women.”

This is also the first time she’ll be singing Cavalli. “But it feels really natural,” she says. “The structure is different from later works, and [in Veremonda] the text is very important. Everyone in this opera has a hidden agenda and no one is ever quite honest.” She points out that Cavalli uses different harmonic chords to indicate when characters are being honest or not, offering another level of interplay between text and music.

A native of Fairbanks, Alaska who lives in Italy and sings all over Europe, her performance in this opera also has special meaning because of its location. “I love coming back to the United States,” she says, noting that it is a “different atmosphere than Europe.” Genaux is looking forward to a new audience experiencing the work.

As for staging, Carpenè and Vizioli have collaborated with Italian pop artist Ugo Nespolo on the set design. Nespolo, known for his expressive use of color and playful compositions, created large tapestries that will serve as backgrounds for the opera. Featuring bright, bold colors, the tapestries use abstract shapes to create stylized scenes of a military fort and the surrounding landscape. Though he’s obviously working in a different era from Cavalli, Nespolo’s style resonates deeply with the Venetian look Carpenè and Vizioli were seeking. “We wanted a lively Mediterranean feel, as the opera is set in Gibraltar. And Ugo could represent this well,” says Carpenè.

With the Nespolo-designed set, along with the close attention to details by Carpenè and Vizioli, Spoleto audiences may notice that the opera has a more contemporary feel. This is important, says Genaux, as while this work and its story are lesser known, the themes and human emotions it addresses are still relevant today — even though it’s been accumulating dust for three and a half centuries.