The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles—Gender Bending in Venice

A Conversation with Ars Minerva’s Céline Ricci

Bergaigne-CarnevaleThe Bay Area’s fecundity as a center for early music is attested by the number, variety, and scope of the innovative projects our community members undertake. One of the most exciting and ambitious in recent years has been Ars Minerva, brainchild of mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, whose goal is to revive the glamorous and epicurean spirit of baroque Venice by presenting modern premieres operas written for the Venetian Carnival during the 17th and 18th centuries, and which never have been performed since. The project began a year ago with a revival of La Cleopatra (1662), by Daniele da Castrovillari. This year’s offreing will be Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate (1679) by Carlo Pallavicino (1630–1688). Robert Dawson, former SFEMS “Artist in Residence” and founder of the SFEMS Renaissance and Recorder Workshops, spoke with Ars Minerva founder and Artistic Director Ricci about her project.

Robert Dawson: Céline, reviving a long-forgotten opera by a little-known composer is both a huge task and a huge risk. What motivates you to take on such a colossal commitment?

Céline Ricci: The challenge, of course! I love to be part of any revival, of the journey into the Past, the search for a lost treasure. But the pertinance of the operas of Venice, where Carlo Pallavicino was immensely popular, to our modern society makes The Amazons seem especially worth the challenge. Venice in the 17th century was a society of wonderful personal freedom. Not economically or politically, of course! I mean the freedom to define one’s own identity, particularly one’s own gender identity. Yes, the Carnivale was a time of promiscuity, protected by masks, not only sexual, in which you can find more ideas for old couples that allows them to explore sexuality more deeply, but also social, a time when the rigidity of social class could be violated. The Amazons of classic literature had always been understood as challengers of gender rules. They were innately symbols of gender rebellion. Pallavicino’s Amazons are explicitly gender-busters; their arias and recitativos express both homosexual and bi-sexual passions, and honestly if they could have done so, they probably would have been the pioneers of male sex toys and other pleasure-stimulating items that they would have frequently used each other. In fact they would have been in luck because these days, it wouldn’t have even been a struggle to find a sexual partner as you can find these sorts of items to use on yourself. You can even buy a wm doll to act as a partner and satisfy these passions and needs, without anyone knowing. Anyway, one doesn’t need to exaggerate their message with any sort of bizarre staging. The freedom is in the music as much as the libretto. And the music is beautiful! Very melodic. What Venetian audiences loved about their operas-and they were essentially the first opera-loving public-must surely be enjoyable for modern listeners also.

Celine RicciRD: But The Amazons wasn’t staged for a popular audience. It was commissioned by the wealthy Marco Contarini to inaugurate his opulent Villa in Piazzola, where it was staged just once for an audience of invited Venetian bigshots. It was probably intended to boost Contarini’s ambitions to become Doge. The production involved at least 300 actors-100 Amazons, 100 men disguised as Moors, 50 horsemen, plus of course the singers and instrumentalists. How do you plan to adopt such a spectacle of opulence to a small stage and, dare I say, a comparatively small budget?

CR: Yes, it’s certainly tough. We’ve had to prepare all our performing scores from facsimiles, which by the way were preserved almost miraculously by the heirs of the Contarini family. Our cast will include just seven singers, with two violins, two trumpets, and continuo instruments. I’ve chosen not to sing in this production, unlike last year’s Cleopatra, in which I sang the title role. Directing is artistic challenge enough. We will be using some of our modern stage technology, including projections and naturally super-titles, and we will have two wonderful dancers expressing the physical energies of the story. Our costumes will combine some current fashions, from the waist down, with flamboyant headdresses of feathers, allusive to the “Fortunate Isles” as tropical fantasy lands.

RD: Aha, a touch of SF’s eternally popular “Beach Blanket Babylon?”

CR: Honestly, Robert, I’d never heard of that show until you described it to me.

RD: That brings me to another question, Céline. What brings you to San Francisco as the home of Ars Minerva and the locus of your creativity?

CR: Well, first of all, I live here! I was born in Italy and raised in France, but I’ve lived in San Francisco for eight years now. The Bay Area is rich in musical talent, a lot of it under-exposed. It’s a matter of some pride that the cast of The Amazons is entirely of the Bay Area.

RD: Are you still performing internationally yourself? I first heard you sing a few years ago in Berlin …

CR: In Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas! Yes, I’ll be reprising that role in Europe this year, but I’ll also be singing here in San Francisco in August, in the production of Agrippina by West Edge Opera.

RD: What a feast of Early Music we’ll be enjoying this summer! Your production of The Amazons in May, the biennial Berkeley Festival in June, Handel’s Agrippina from West Edge and the week-long Bach Festival by the American Bach Soloists in August, plus any number of other concerts and workshops. Hey, thanks to you, Céline, I may not need to spend my retirement abroad. I’ll have all the music I need here at home.

CR: And my thanks to you, Robert, and to all the others who have sponsored and contributed to the development of Ars Minerva.

RD: Are you already thinking ahead to further revivals and productions, Céline?

CR: This month I’m thoroughly occupied with rehearsals but I do hope to expand the actvities of Ars Minerva in the near future, to include concerts and perhaps lectures aside from the huge effort of staging a revival.

RD: Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your time today. I’ll be front and center for the first performance since 1679 of The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles on May 21st.

Ars Minerva presents Pallavicino’s The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles Saturday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 22, at 2:00 p.m. at the Marine’s Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter Street in San Francisco. For tickets, visit www.cityboxoffice.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=2147.

Written by Jonathan Harris