Opera Feroce Concocts a Pastry-Like Pasticcio

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One of the hottest tickets of the Met’s 2011-12 season is the star-studded world premiere of The Enchanted Island, a “Baroque fantasy” culled from preexisting musical works by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau and story elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s a new production that befits conductor William Christie (whose Met debut last fall was rather lackluster given his well-deserved and hard-earned musical pedigree), who leads a cast that includes Danielle de Niese, Lisette Oropesa, Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Luca Pisaroni and, in a bit of luxury casting, Plácido Domingo. It’s also a throwback to the late-17th- and early-18th-century trend of pasticcio, a veritable operatic pudding with arias usually selected by singers and recitatives and ensembles provided by anyone from a house composer to theater manager (pause here to imagine Peter Gelb or George Steel writing recitatives).

Prodigious composers like Handel and Vivaldi often borrowed from their own works. The former’s Oreste is a perfect example of 1700s pasticcio, along with his Rinaldo. Such works were especially successful in the age before mass communications, allowing the composer’s best-known musical works to reach a wider audience. Even later in the course of opera history, we see composers recycle arias from one opera to the next, and occasionally from one voice type to another, as Rossini famously did with Cenerentola’s “Non più mesta” and Barbiere’s “Cessa di più resistere.”

As we get some of the first heat waves of the season, December seems a long way off. Thankfully, Opera Feroce offers a pasticcio fix this Sunday and next with Amor & Psyche, a work that has received some excellent early exposure with the adventurous Vertical Player Repertory (best known, perhaps, for its site-specific production of Il Tabarro on a retired oil tanker).

Opera Feroce, a company based in Inwood, goes for baroque with 13 composers represented in this jukebox opera, which includes music from three centuries by composers including Handel, Nicola Porpora, John Dowland, Johann Philipp Krieger and Giuseppe Savatelli. The trio behind the opera consists of mezzo-soprano Hayden DeWitt (who is also credited with the concept) as Amor, soprano Beth Anne Hatton as Psyche (and the spearheader of “musical stuff”) and countertenor Alan Dornak, who is responsible for staging and performing the roles of “Everyone Else.” Accompanying them are harpsichordist Kelly Savage, viola da gambist Motomi Igarashi and violinist Vita Wallace.

The deep-seated collaboration has so far served this trio well—their voices blend with the ease and depth of an artisanal latte. More striking, however, is the extended ownership that these three singers have over the work. Dornak is also the general director of Opera Feroce and Hatton is director of publicity. In some of the city’s bigger companies, things are tough all over. In addition to City Opera’s financial and union woes; the Met is playing its 2011-12 season predominantly safe, presumably with a bottom line partially in mind; DiCapo Opera rescheduled its May performances of Eugene Onegin to the 2012-13 season and the Opéra Français de New York did a similar switcheroo for Messaïen’s Harawi, Chant d’amour et de mort.

And while that’s not to say that smaller companies aren’t feeling the pinch, they do exemplify a much-needed entrepreneurial spirit in singers to take the reigns of their own destinies. A composer friend of mine said yesterday that working in the arts is “the wild west,” offering no certainty—even for unionized musicians. However, intrepid folks still opt for the lawless and precarious world of classical music, which at times offers just as much risk (if not as much reward) as working on Wall Street or in real estate. The smart ones, like Dornak, Hatton and DeWitt, see it as such, approaching their art as a business opportunity rather than a charitable cause, and make their own luck.