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REVIEW: Rare Dafne Brought to Light (Twin Cities Early Music Festival)

A 16th-century painting of the Greek legend of Apollo and Daphne by Paolo Veronese, showing Daphne morphing into a tree in front of Apollo’s anguished eyes.

The featured portions of the Twin Cities Early Music Festival launched yesterday with a performance of Marco da Gagliano’s 1608 opera La Dafne. The rarely performed opera features beautiful musical and vocal writing. The performance marks an ambitious start for the newly formed Bold North Baroque Opera, which staged the work.

If you’ve ever done any study of opera history, you’ve probably heard of the Florentine Camerata. This late-16th/early-17th group of Italian men created what we now call opera after studying Greek drama and deciding that the entire Western approach to music-text setting was wrong. One man affiliated with the Camerata, Ottavio Rinuccini, went on to write the librettos for several operas by Claudio Monteverdi that are still performed with some frequency today. He was also the librettist for Gagliano’s La Dafne.

To modern sensibilities, La Dafne moves to a different beat – there is much declamation, action (even the slaying of a monster) moves slowly, and there is much contemplation and anguish. This is in keeping with the Camerata’s aesthetic, which embraced using sung music in a so-called monody, where the words of poetry can ring clearly and with extra weight. BNBO’s staging does not mess with this concentration, with characters entering onstage to sing their pieces and then departing.

John Michael Wright’s painting Lady with a Theorbo (c. 1670) shows one of the instruments featured in La Dafne.

Due to an optical issue with the supertitles in the performance space, audiences are recommended to make use of the English-Italian libretto, which can be freely downloaded online. (At opening night, a small group in the back of the hall read through the libretto on their smartphones, a modern parallel to the the historical practice of pre-printing librettos to better appreciate the poetry.)

The instrumental ensemble for this opera consisted of eight musicians on period instruments, ranging from Baroque violins and a viola da gambo to a theorbo and archlute; if you’re used to opera from the last two hundred years, the sound has a pleasant novelty, indeed. Marco Real-d’Arbelles conducted.

The story of Apollo and Daphne is a classic one from Greco-Roman mythology: one god takes an interest in a mortal, the terrified mortal flees, and another god rescues them by turning them into a tree or other growing thing. This version of the story injects a monster, shepherds, and a divine tiff involving Cupid and Venus. Vocal highlights include the powerful yet sweet countertenor of Joe Nelson (as Tirsi), soprano Sarah Jackson (as Dafne/Daphne), and Janna Kysilko (as Amore/Cupid).

As the featured debut of Bold North Baroque Opera, Dafne hints of large ambitions to come. As a centerpiece of the Twin Cities Early Music Festival, it does exactly what these festivals do best: finding buried gems and bringing them to life in rich, vibrant sound in front of you.

La Dafne continues tonight at 8 PM at the St. Paul Conservatory of Music in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine