Friday, August 18, 2017

The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana

Nikki Einfeld (Diana), Christine Brandes (Cupid), and the Sarah Berges Dance Company (the Chastity Tree),
in West Edge Opera's The Chastity Tree.

What was the most popular opera in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime? You might guess his Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787) or Cosi fan tutte (They're all like that, 1790). Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretti for them all, and today they are among the most-produced operas in the world (Figaro is #8, Don Giovanni #9, and Cosi #15 over the past five years, according to Operabase).

But at the time they were written, none of those operas came close to the success of L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, or as West Edge Opera's director Mark Streshinsky translates it, The Chastity Tree, 1787) written by Da Ponte for the composer Vicente Martin y Soler. By 1792 L'arbore di Diana had received 65 performances in Vienna, while another Martin-Da Ponte collaboration, Una cosa rara ([Beauty and faithfulness are] A rare thing, 1786) had received 55 performances. Mozart's most popular opera, Figaro, had received 38—a respectable success, but only enough to rank as the seventh-most popular opera of the time.

In his entertaining but untrustworthy memoirs, written 35 years later, Da Ponte stated his belief that L'arbore di Diana was "the best of all the operas I ever composed. . .it was voluptuous without overstepping into the lascivious." [1]

This is wrong on two counts. In my view the best libretto Da Ponte ever wrote was Figaro, although the excellence of the original Beaumarchais play might also have had something to do with its high quality. And as for L'arbore di Diana being voluptuous without being lascivious, clearly Da Ponte didn't anticipate director Mark Streshinsky's approach in his West Edge Opera production (seen August 12), which was broadly and audaciously camp.

The bawdiness began during the overture, when the dancers of choreographer Sarah Berges' company, representing the Chastity Tree, take the stage wearing "fruits of extraordinary size" on their chests. The "fruit" resembled nothing so much as a giant golden breast with an enormous pink nipple, which lit up on occasion. (By the way, the description "fruits of extraordinary size" is from Da Ponte's Memoirs. [2]) The deliberately over-the-top costumes were by Christine Cook, who was clearly given carte blanche.

Malte Roesner (Doristo) with members of the Sarah Berges Dance Company

In Jean-Francois Revon's set (the only aspect of this production where a less-is-more aesthetic could be said to prevail), the Chastity Tree cleverly suggested the industrial surroundings of the Pacific Pipe Company warehouse that is West Edge Opera's new home this season—yet another example of this adventurous company's ability to make a virtue of necessity.

In his memoirs Da Ponte explained the function of the Chastity Tree:
If the nymphs of that goddess were chaste in deed and in thought, as they passed under the tree, the apples began to glow and shine and from them, and from all the surrounding branches, there issued murmurs and sounds that harmonized in a melody of heavenly sweetness. But if any one of them had sinned against the sanctity of that virtue, the fruits became blacker than coal, dropped upon her head, or on her back and disfigured her face, bruised her body or broke her limbs, the punishment being proportionate to her crime. [3]
Into her garden the goddess Diana (Nikki Einfeld) has brought the rustic Doristo (Malte Roesner), who is supposed to guard the tree. He's far more interested, though, in romping with Diana's nymphs: the cautious Chloe (Kathleen Moss), the eager Britomarte (Maya Kherani), and the curious Clizia (Molly Mahoney).

Cupid (Christine Brandes), the God of Love, has become affronted by Diana's ostentatious chastity and wants to defeat his arch-rival. He seduces Doristo by dressing in outrageous drag, and recruits two shepherds, Endimione (tenor Kyle Stegall) and Silvio (the "other tenor" Jacob Thompson) to aid his plan. After being struck by Cupid's arrow, Diana falls in love with Endimione, but her oracle (Silvio in disguise) then demands that she herself undergo the test of the Chastity Tree. . .

Nikki Einfeld (Diana)

Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly. There was not a weak link; particularly noteworthy were Malte Roesner's robust baritone as the randy Doristo, Kyle Stegall's lyrical tenor as Diana's crush Endimione, Maya Kherani's bright-toned Britomarte, and Nikki Einfeld's fierce Diana. Einfeld also looked smashing in Diana's floor-length sequined gowns. (I'm not sure how one would hunt in such an outfit, but never mind.)

In a pre-concert talk Streshinsky aptly compared the music of Diana to a cross between that of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute. 1791), for its wide range and formidable coloratura, and Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte, for her anguished emotions as she finds her heart contradicting her vows. [4]

Here is a sample of Diana's music from the 2009 production of L'arbore di Diana from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, with Laura Aiken as Diana, accompanied by the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra, Harry Bicket, conductor:

Da Ponte's words:

Teco porta, o mia speranza,
l’alma mia, che vien con te,
e la grata rimembranza
d’un ardor che vive in me.
Fosti il primo, e il solo or sei
bel desio di questo cor,
e a cangiar gli affetti miei
sfido il fato e sfido il cor.
Vanne, caro – ah, ch’io mi sento
dal tormento lacerar!
Torni, torni il bel momento
che ristori il mio penar.
Take with you, my dearest,
my soul, which follows you,
and the sweet memory
of the ardor that you have aroused in me.
You were the first and remain the only
desire of my heart,
and I defy fate and Love
to change my feelings.
Go, my darling!
Oh, the agony!
May the day soon come
when my suffering comes to an end.

Although Aiken's voice is not, to my ear, ideally sensuous as Diana—the role would have been perfect for a young Lucia Popp—this will give you a sense of Martin's sound-world.

Einfeld dispatched Diana's difficult runs with fire and brilliance, but also made profoundly affecting "those sweet melodies of [Martin's], which one feels deep in the spirit, but which few know how to imitate." [5]

One who did know how to imitate them was Mozart, who recognized good tunes when he heard them. There are numerous musical and narrative parallels between Mozart's operas and L'arbore di Diana. Because Mozart is familiar and Martin is now virtually unknown, I couldn't help but hear in Martin's writing echoes of Mozart. But perhaps it would be equally true to say that in Mozart we can hear echoes of Martin. (In Don Giovanni's supper scene, Mozart paid homage to the composer by having the onstage band play an aria from Una cosa rara.)

Sheila Hodges, author of Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002) has written that the libretti Da Ponte wrote for Martin lack "the depths of character-drawing, refinement and poetry which Da Ponte achieved in his operas for Mozart." This is true enough, and it's also true that Martin's music is not as sublime as Mozart's. But it features "no end of tender melodies"; his "impulse runs to lyricism rather than dramatic intensity." [6] Conductor Robert Mollicone led a vivid performance of Martin's score by the WEO Festival Orchestra, among whom were recognizable some moonlighting members of well-known Bay Area ensembles.

West Edge Opera's bold production is a very welcome introduction to the work of a composer who seems ripe for rediscovery. The final performance of The Chastity Tree will take place August 19 at 8 pm; for more details see the West Edge Opera website.

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott from the Italian, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929, pp. 177-178.
  2. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  3. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  4. The comparison may have been suggested by Roy Jesson, "Martin's 'L'arbore di Diana,'" The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1552 (June 1972), p. 552. 
  5. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 174.
  6. John Platoff, "A New History for Martin's Una cosa rara," The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 94-95.

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