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Review: Long-Forgotten ‘Los Elementos’ Lives Again—Olé!

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 5, 2017

New York City often sees American premieres, but scarcely after such long periods of neglect as endured by Los Elementos, a one-act opera composed by largely forgotten Spanish court composer Antonio Literes in the early 1700’s. Little seems to be known about the context in which the work was originally presented, but it is described on its title page as an opera in the Italian style, and it consists of a series of typically Baroque da capo arias, recitatives, choruses, as well as numbers in the burgeoning Spanish style of the time, especially notable for the use of hemiola, or mixing of two and three that is still associated with Hispanic music.

Baroque opera can be a remote art form in the modern age, and even more so when the story is as elemental (if you will), as it is here. However, New York City Opera has mounted a delightfully compelling production, staged and choreographed by Richard Stafford at the unusual venue of Harlem Stage, with music direction and harpsichord continuo by NYCO Principal Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti.

The orchestra, boasting such period instruments as viola da gamba, theorbo (a type of lute), and Baroque harp, behind an upstage scrim (upon which gentle imagery was projected) and simple white curtains forming the wings (scenic and projection design was by John Farrell), Stafford’s staging achieves remarkable fluidity through economical means. The only prop was a plain white box. The onstage personnel consists of two skilled dancers (Esther Antoine and Adam Rogers), in addition to a four person chorus, and the cast of characters (really allegorical figures, as pointed out in Antoni Pizà’s program notes): Air, Earth, Water, Fire, Dawn, and Time. Stafford employed the athletic dancing couple to expressive effect, and smartly created natural, lyrical movements for the singers to perform, all intricately interwoven into a stream of constant motion.

Los Elementos straddles the line between being an opera as contemporary audiences might think of it, and being a secular cantata. Aesthetically, it might even be reminiscent of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, a different musical genre of course, but sharing the Baroque approach to tone-painting and depicting nature through music. But the subject matter, essentially the transition from night to day and the rising of the sun, is merely a framework upon which to hang music, poetry, and dance. In the first section, the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) are introduced with characteristically contrasting material, and in the middle section, the eventual arrival of dawn is imaginatively reflected again in each of the elements’ responses.

In the role of Air, soprano Samarie Alicia excelled at bringing an immediacy to the material, and sang with a round, focused tone and crisp diction. She began the evening with optimistic cheer alongside Melanie Ashkar as Earth, who brought wonderful stage presence. Chelsea Bonagura and Kelsey Robertson, depicting Water and Fire respectively, were terrific, especially when they battled in a fiery duet showdown of coloratura virtuosity. The music’s Spanish flavor was evident in the minor key and snappy accompaniment.

(l. to r.) Melanie Ashkar, Chelsea Bonagura, and Samarie Alicia in ‘Los Elementos;’ photo: Sarah Shatz.

As Dawn, Magda Gartner brought a suitable radiance and a weighty, gleaming voice. Marco Nisticò, singing the role of Time, brought a strong, muscular baritone, and carried a stoic, distant demeanor. His first aria featured strange descending chromatic lines and obscure rhythms, and many phrases (including the final one) ended with curious half-cadences. This was very interesting writing, which might have been more expressively interpreted. Throughout, the musically difficult logistics only rarely obscured the intricacies of the syncopated Spanish rhythm.

Janet O’Neill’s elegant costumes represented what one might imagine the originals would have looked like, if the eighteenth century had glitter (and maybe it did?), courtly and bewigged. Shawn Kaufman’s lighting design did not draw attention to itself, and Georgianna Eberhard’s wigs did, both well integrated into the spare, mythological feel.

The small chorus sounded terrific, and their rollicking quartet at the opera’s midpoint was the perfect palette cleanser. Stafford’s effective, sweeping use of movement and mood supported the emotional impetus of the music and he succeeded at finding the right dramatic and musical moments to create punctuating moving stage pictures with a sense of occasion.

The piece’s final section is a celebration, climaxing in a rousing, joyous finale, with a bouncy infectiousness and more of Literes’s playful rhythms. My sole quibble is that the percussionist (Samuel Budish) should have received his own bow, as the driving energy in those busy, infectious rhythms of Los Elementos was embodied in his energetically played castanets.

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Los Elementos presented by the New York City Opera at Harlem Stage, 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street, on May 4-7, 2017. Music composed by Antonio Literes;
librettist: Anonymous. Music Director/Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti; director/choreographer: Richard Stafford; set design by John Farrell; costume design by Janet O’Neill; lighting design by Susan Roth; hair/makeup design by Georgianna Eberhard. Cast: El Ayre: Samarie Alicea; La Tierra: Melanie Ashkar; El Agua: Chelsea Bonagura; El Fuego: Kelsey Robertson; La Aurora: Magda Gartner; El Tiempo: Marco Nisticó; Dancers: Esther Antoine and Adam Rogers.

 

Cover: (foreground) Adam Rogers, Samarie Alicea, Esther Antoine and (background) Melanie Ashkar; photo: Sarah Shatz.


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