It may only be day two of the festival, but I feel confident saying that this is one of the best we’ve had in several years. I’ve just finished my fourth performance (Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona), and there hasn’t been a single dud in the bunch. What’s more, I’ve been plunged into the depths of despair and taken to comic heights within a matter of hours. What else, besides great art, can give one the chance to feel that way on demand?
I’ve just come out of Veremonda, and the thing that struck me most about this recently discovered, 350-year-old opera is how funny it is. It’s a tale of war, passion, and deceit — the Spanish queen Veremonda recruits an army of women (they’re called an army of Amazons, but they seem to be just ladies-in-waiting who’ve abandoned their petticoats for shields and swords) to attack the Fort of Gibraltar. She then learns that the her general Delio is in love with the Gibraltan queen Zelemina, and is traveling to the fort each night secretly to see her. Double-crossing, mistaken identities, and marriage ensue.
Such subjects offer ample opportunities for comedy, and composer Aaron Carpené, director Stefano Vizioli, and set and costume designer Ugo Nespolo have run with every one. The Amazon warriors? Thoroughly un-military women dressed up in shiny silver hot pants. Veremonda’s milquetoast husband, King Roldano? He cowers behind a book when Veremonda scolds him for his lack of interest in the war.
One of the funniest gags was right at the beginning, when Zelemina’s nurse goes fishing, lowering her line offstage into the orchestra pit. She gets a bite, and pulls and struggles with the line, then pulls up … a violin. She even hits it a few times with her pole. And it’s hilarious.
Then there’s the couple Zerrifo, Delio’s servant, and Vespina, one of the lady warriors, who offer comic relief from this already comic opera — Vespina sings an entire song about how no one will marry her because she’s so short, while Zerrifo acts as Delio’s bumbling sidekick who can’t keep a secret.
Ugo Nespolo’s set was bright, stylized, and almost cartoonish, which only added to the show’s humor. More importantly, it banished any vestiges of irrelevance or decrepitness from this very old and unknown work.
While I very much enjoyed Veremonda, I have to say that my admiration for it pales in comparison to how I feel about the Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which I saw earlier this afternoon. I went in with middling expectations which were surpassed — shattered is a better term — the moment the stage lights came up and showed Blanche DuBois (Araminta Wraith) stretching a fluttering hand toward a bare Edison lightbulb, then shrinking back from it, hands clutching her head, over and over. It a moth were suddenly transformed into a human, Wraith is precisely what it would look like. It was so heartbreaking, and so illustrative of Blanche’s frail and broken mind, that I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.
And they kept coming, too. One brilliant thing that the Ballet has done is put Blanche’s story in chronological order, so that the ballet opens with her wedding to her doomed husband, Alan, who kills himself when Blanche finds him with another man. After she discovers them, and dances a tortured pas de trois with both men, Alan runs offstage and shoots himself, appearing later — and many times throughout the ballet — in a grotesquely bloodstained shirt.
We cycle through the series of family deaths and the loss of the family plantation, Belle Reve, in a series of beautifully poignant and sharp effects that left the audience gasping, and which I don’t want to ruin. And while these decisions do great service to the storytelling, they also make Blanche a much more sympathetic character than she ever was in the play. Without dialogue, it’s easier to see through her pathetic vanities — in the play, she’s petrified of being seen in direct light, for instance — to the real tragedy of her life, and that makes for a singularly moving theatrical experience. By the time the show ended with the same image of Blanche, fluttering her dainty little hand toward that light, I felt emotionally wrecked. I’ve no doubt that it’s one of the shows I’ll think about for years and years to come.