The Early Music Guild's Theodore Deacon is famous (some might say infamous) for baroque opera productions featuring edgy touches: an onstage motorcycle, fascist thugs, phone sex. In what may be EMG's most daring project to date, however, Deacon and his collaborators eschew gimmickry in favor of tradition and collaboration.
Early Music Guild has teamed with Seattle Theatre Group and Spectrum Dance Theater to create an ambitious multi-genre staging of two of the baroque era's most exquisite vocal works: Orazio Vecchi's L'Amfiparnaso and Claudio Monteverdi's ballet-opera Il ballo delle ingrate. The project's rather awkward title, "A Day on the Town, a Night in Hell," foreshadows both the program order and its subject: the comic and tragic vicissitudes of love.
Orazio Vecchi is widely credited as the inventor of opera. In L'Amfiparnaso (1594) his elegant madrigal scenarios exploit themes and characters of popular Commedia dell'arte street theater. Whether Vecchi intended live actors to participate is subject to debate; clearly, by the time Monteverdi composed his opera-ballet Il ballo delle ingrate (1608) the fusion of vocal music and physical action was in full flower. The contrasts and common threads between these two works will be on display in the Early Music Guild's "A Day on the Town, a Night in Hell."
"A Day on the Town" brings L'Amfiparnaso to the stage as a picturesque "madrigal comedy" directed by Seattle's Commedia dell'Arte master Arne Zaslove and musical director Stephen Stubbs of Pacific Musicworks. Some of Seattle's finest baroque vocalists will have a chance to try out Theodore Deacon's new English translation — the first, Deacon maintains, to artfully wed English text to the music while preserving important nuances of dialect, status, and word-play that are hallmarks of Vecchi's libretto.
Six actors, including world-famous Commedia clown Paul Del Bene, perform in traditional Commedia masks, costumes, and style, mostly in dumb-show but occasionally stealing dialogue from the singers, who share the stage as observers and participants in the action.
Part Two goes straight to "A Night in Hell": Monteverdi's Il ballo delle ingrate opens in the Underworld as Cupid and Venus petition Pluto to sway the cold-hearted ladies of Mantua. Stage director and choreographer Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater balances the traditional style of Zaslove's "Town" segment with production motifs inspired by the 1934 film "Death Takes a Holiday," set in an Italian villa where Death is a guest. Stephen Stubbs hews to the score with vocalists and period instrumentalists, while the action plummets from the comic Parnassian heights of Vecchi to Monteverdi's world of shadows, closing with what Theodore Deacon calls "possibly the most beautiful lament that Monteverdi ever wrote."
The project's ambition is dizzying. Will it achieve the pinnacle to which it aspires?
In an interview during pre-production "hell-week," Zaslove and Deacon looked somewhat haggard but sounded optimistic. "I wanted to do this because I don't think it's ever been done before," Zaslove said. "Luckily we have all gotten along very well; this was a good fit."
The main players in the production have track records of collaboration and flexibility. Early Music Guild has grown into a production powerhouse and network of artists. Many musicians in "A Day on the Town, a Night in Hell" have worked with Stephen Stubbs before, some in Pacific MusicWorks' recent Handel Festival; Zaslove has been churning out edge-of-your-seat theater in Seattle for decades; Spectrum Dance Theater has a long record of innovation. One could hardly ask for a better complement of players.
EMG's Gus Denhard said Seattle Theater Group's Executive Director Josh LaBelle and Director of Programming Jason Ferguson have been "incredibly supportive and accommodating." So the logistics of pulling together three arts organizations, two contrasting baroque scores, actors, dancers, singers, sets, and all other elements of musical theater production have gone well, it would seem.
Donald Byrd, stage director and choreographer of Il ballo delle ingrate was similarly upbeat. "It's all about respecting what other artists bring to the table. That's the essential in working with others on a project like this, or any project." He mentioned Stephen Stubbs' theatrical experience as an asset in staging this early opera that incorporates dance as well as principal actor-singers and a small chorus. "The music and the libretto really drive the production," said Byrd, at least as far as the story and emotional experience go.
Achieving that balance of music and action in L'Amfiparnaso has been challenging, but uplifting, according to Zaslove and Deacon. "The flexibility of madrigals is perfect for "A Day on the Town," explained Deacon. Zaslove tempered that somewhat, commenting that "the singers right now have a tough climb," but he pointed out that the two groups — actors and musicians — each have their own role to play. "We're not tampering with the score, at all. I'm doing a staging that fits the music, but it's really not to-the-measure at all; it's over it, and under it. We're telling the story physically and visually; they're telling the story vocally and musically."
Will the gods smile down on this immense project? Back-to-back productions, two casts, different sets, composers, directors, and sensibilities, and a complex technical set-up — sounds like a recipe for triumph or disaster. "That's the beauty of art," Theodore Deacon said as he staggered off to another grueling tech rehearsal.
"We knew from the beginning that this would be an experiment. But, that's part of the joy of it. Believe me, there have been bumps along the road putting it together, but it will be something that no one has ever seen before, and I hope they won't forget."
That, at the very least, sounds like a given.
If you go: "A Day on the Town, a Night in Hell," Early Music Guild, April 15-17, Moore Theater, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle. Theodore Deacon, Artistic Coordinator. Tickets cost $38 to $88 and are available at Seattle Theatre Group ticket kiosks, by phone (877-784-4849), or online.