Quantum Theatre, Chatham Baroque reinvent forgotten opera 300 years later

By Toni Jackson, Staff Writer

For the first full production since its 1730 premiere, Riccardo Broschi’s 18th century opera “Idaspe” came to life onstage with Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque. Directed by Claire van Kampen, the show runs on select dates through Oct. 15 at the Byham Theater.    

“Idaspe” follows Artaserse and Dario, two siblings from the post-war Middle East who came to Naples as refugees. As adults, the pair lead opposing clans in an organized crime underworld. Atraserse kidnaps two women from his rivals, causing the two groups to face each other as the conflict deepens. 

Karla Boos, founder and artistic director of Quantum Theatre, said she believes that discounted student tickets are a wonderful and rare opportunity to introduce students to opera in a production with world-class singers including John Holiday (Idaspe), and Vivica Genaux (Dario), who Boos describes as the “Serena Williams” of opera. 

“It would be cool if your first opera [is] this, because you will see virtuosity in terms of the singers, but you will also see a piece of contemporary theater. There are great, very contemporary designs and costumes. It kind of looks like a Felini film,” Boos said. “Though the music is old, it’s interpreted by the best people there are living to sing it, and it has a lens that is the present.”

Famous castrato opera singer Farinelli originated the role of Dario in 1730. Farinelli was the brother of Idaspe composer Riccardo Broschi, who wrote the role for him. Castrato singers — male operatic singers who were castrated before puberty to retain their high singing voice — no longer exist. Roles performed by Farinelli are typically performed by women, such as Genaux as Dario in this production. Farineli was the subject of the 1994 French film “Farinelli,” in which he performs an aria, or solo piece, from “Idaspe.”

The cast of Idaspe. (Image courtesy of Quantum Theater, photo by Jason Snyder )

Though the style of music is baroque, the Quantum adapted the plot and setting for modern audiences. In addition, the opera was cut down from its traditional four hours with three acts to around two and a half hours with two acts. 

Pitt students can receive discounted tickets for “Idaspe” through PITT ARTS. The Byham Theater is around 20 minutes away from Pitt’s campus on the 71 or 61 bus routes to Downtown. It is a midsized theater and ideal for those who are intimidated by the prospect of attending an opera. The opera is performed in Italian, but there is English text projected above the stage that is easily visible. 

Chatham Baroque provides the opera’s live music, a local ensemble that plays baroque music on period instruments. Andrew Fouts, violinist and co-artistic director of Chatham Baroque, said the production’s score is as fun to play as it is to hear.

“The gift that [Broschi] has for melody is great,” Fouts said. “There are a number of arias in this production, except for two, that have not been heard before. I hope it’ll start to enter the canon for some singers … I think it’s exciting to put on a new piece.” 

This production of “Idaspe” is as much about the singing as it is the instrumental music, the dance and general production value. Fouts said he admires how each piece of the production ties with one another. 

“The music, which is thrilling, just keeps it moving along. It’s not a sort of episodic pedantic. You know, here’s an aria, here’s some dialogue, here’s some aria. It’s kinetic. It just keeps going. It never rests. There’s always something changing. Lighting, movement, dance,” Fouts said. “I feel like I’m on the edge of my seat as we’ve been doing runs, I’m invested in the characters and I’ve never really had that experience to the same degree.”

Boos and Fouts said director Claire van Kampen was the one who introduced “Idaspe” to them. The team was set to do Vivaldi’s Bajazet when Van Kampen shared that many arias in it were not written by Vivaldi, but by other composers. Among these arias included one by Broschi — an aria from “Idaspe.” After delving further into the plot of “Idaspe,” they agreed upon it to be their next production. 

“We found it to be very beautiful and compelling to have a story that had contemporary relevance. Two immigrants who were brother and sister were separated when they were young and rose to be leaders in rival clans. We set the [opera] in 1960’s Naples, these clans are in a mafia underworld,” Boos added. “We also thought that the way Western cities treat immigrants could be some of the subject of our opera.”

Soprano Pascale Beaudin, who plays Berenice, said because Idaspe is lesser known, performers and the cast had creative freedom to not be compared to past productions. In addition, extended rehearsal time gave the crew more time to refine their characters. 

“In North America, we’ll have three weeks to stage the whole thing from the first rehearsal to opening night,” Beaudin said. “Whereas here we had five, which was a wonderful luxury and really allowed us to explore the characters and explore the relationships between the characters and really treat it as a play rather than a business.”

Beaudin added that even those who aren’t familiar with opera will be able to enjoy this production. 

“If you like musical theater, this is musical theater, except it’s in Italian and you will [still] understand stuff because it’s subtitled, and you can follow along. The lighting is beautiful, the dancers are wonderful,” Beaudin stated. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity performance for anybody who will come with an open heart and an open mind.”