An Unusual Evening of Baroque Opera and Kuchipudi Flavors

Opera Lafayette with Kalanidhi Dance
Scarlatti’s Erminia and Geminiani’s La forêt enchantée
Lynch Theater, John Jay College | February 2, 2018

Maratha Spirits and Maratha Wizard in rehearsal of Opera Lafayette's production of La Forêt enchantée (The Enchanted Forest) by Francesco Geminiani Scarlatti-Geminiani-1557. Photo: © 2018 Louis Forget

On a frigid evening in February, Opera Lafayette warmed the Lynch Theater with a most unusual program. The early instrument company is based in Washington D.C. and seen regularly in New York. On this occasion, the program featured an incomplete opera, Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1723 Erminia, whose first act is the only one extant. Following it was Francesco Geminiani’s La forêt enchantée (The Enchanted Forest) from 1754. This five act, but short, ballet pantomime score was choreographed and performed by Kalanidhi Dance from Bethesda, Maryland, a company notable for its kuchipudi dance from India.

The result was a feast of music, richly sung, as a main course, with a delectable dessert course mixing baroque music and kuchipudi-inflected, though far from purely Indian, dance. Both took place under a lacy pavilion by Richard Ouellette, lit by Rob Siler at first with a bright forest green. And both opera and ballet derive from different parts of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered).

Tasso’s work, published in 1581, has inspired much music, including operas by Lully and Gluck, both previously performed by Opera Lafayette. The company also recently presented Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, another take on the Tasso. The plot of Tasso’s epic, which revolves around the siege of Jerusalem as the finale of the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century, is convoluted, with its various love stories predominating in different librettos. The imaginative Tasso took liberties with history, and librettists take liberties with Tasso. And so, of course, does Opera Lafayette-Kalanidhi with The Enchanted Forest.

But first we enjoyed Erminia. The plot, a small portion of the epic and much changed here, with assumed and mistaken identities, is less confusing with the surtitles than the synopsis. But what decidedly takes precedence is the music. It’s Scarlatti and the singers, directed by Richard Gammon, and Opera Lafayette’s orchestra, conducted by founder Ryan Brown, who deliver the emotional impact in an abbreviated opera that is replete with lush recitatives and plush da capo arias, elaborately ornamented and well sung. The Lynch Theater’s stage is small but adequate, and the auditorium’s intimacy makes it perfect for a chamber opera.

The mezzo Julia Dawson is a fine coloratura Erminia, who aptly conveys her emotional confusion. The shepherd, Pastore, is perhaps not so important in Tasso, but in this Erminia, the big, suave, and agile bass-baritone of André Courville provides much pleasure, as does the tenor Asitha Tennekoon as the enamored Polidoro. Allegra De Vita, another mezzo, performs the smaller trouser role of Tancredi and sometimes sings with the constricted quality of a counter-tenor so that it surprises when she soars into full voice. Erminia ends the opera (that is, the first act) in a meditative lament, which definitely feels premature. But as pure music, Erminia has been highly rewarding.

Erminia is set in a clearing before a forest and The Enchanted Forest begins in a nighttime woodland, full of spirits. Opera Lafayette has changed the setting from Palestine to India, from the Crusaders’ siege of Jerusalem to the 17th century Mughal wars with the Marathas of the western Deccan. In this transposition the Mughal warriors (Muslim) are the equivalent of the Christian Crusaders and the Maratha court (Hindu) takes the role of the defeated Muslims.

Maratha Spirits confront a Mughal Warrior in rehearsal of Opera Lafayette's production of La Forêt enchantée (The Enchanted Forest) by Francesco Geminiani Scarlatti-Geminiani-16619. Photo: © 2018 Louis Forget

 Surtitles alert us to the changes of setting of the five brief acts—the forest at night, the Maratha court, the forest at dawn, the Mughal camp, the forest at day. The Maratha and Mughal characters have real Indian names and sometimes Tasso equivalent names in parenthesis, but you would have to be a Tasso devotee for this to be notable. The Crusaders eventually withdrew and the Marathas soon began winning battles and eventually defeated the Mughals, forming their own empire over much of the sub-continent.

The story is much less important, however, than the fleet and pleasing music and the accompanying dance. Giovanni Servandoni, the original stager of the dance pantomime, who commissioned the score from Geminiani, apparently produced scenic marvels at its performance at a theater in Paris in 1754. It would be intriguing (and expensive) to see a baroque dance performance that tried something similar. The brief score is normally performed as a purely instrumental piece.

This was Kalanidhi Dance’s third collaboration with Opera Lafayette. Kuchipudi began as a male group dance drama style in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and in the 20th century became a solo—or group—form danced by women and men. It is similar to, but bolder than, the more familiar bharatanatyam. Kalanidhi’s founder, Anuradha Nehru, choreographed and directed The Enchanted Forest in a way that mixes touches of kuchipudi with a graceful, running style that matches the fleet baroque music. Indian mudras give way to more naturalistic mime such as chopping hands that cut down the forest. Kuchipudi or bharatanatyam stances (all the guest men have bharatanatyam backgrounds) soon turn into quick moves to suit the music. Indian dance forms certainly have plenty of speedy action, but this goes with percussive Indian rhythms. Kuchipudi stamps need that percussive interaction; Geminiani’s baroque runs need something more fluid, and the more Western dance style does that here.

In the opening scene of the forest, six Kalanidhi women are Maratha Spirits: spirits that return to haunt every forest scene. Clad in white kuchipudi full-legged costumes but with front-fan skirts and imaginative crowning headdresses that form spiky and looped fans over their heads, these exotic spirits are always a pleasure to see. An accompanying Maratha Wizard (Tasso also has a wizard and spirits), danced by the incisive Sai Santosh Radhakrishnan, one of the guest men, adds to the enchantment. 

Three Kalanidhi women in white form the Maratha court, making masculine gestures to assert their authority. Three men are the Mughal warriors. The Mughal costumes, by Meriem Bahri, echo her designs for the Scarlatti opera men in color (oranges and red browns) and form (robes with wide belts). As with the Spirits, these handsome male figures dance in a mixed idiom that is Indian-flavored with mudras and wide-legged stances that soon mutate rather than sustain anything Indian. It’s a charming mixture that works with the music. The drama is mimed with mudras and naturalistic gestures, but I can’t say the dramatic action had much impact on me. Just as music reigns over story in Erminia, dance and pageantry reign over story in The Enchanted Forest. And because it isn’t very long, I wanted more of it.


Susanna Sloat

SUSANNA SLOAT is the editor of Making Caribbean Dance: Continuity and Creativity in Island Cultures and Caribbean Dance from Abakua to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity.