Resurrecting a 17th-century Italian opera whose sole musical source was incompletely notated was a challenge musicologist Neal Zaslaw and a group of students were happy to accept.
What started as a spring 2015 seminar project was unveiled March 19-20 as an opera complete with Baroque instruments, Arcadian shepherds, hellish demons and classical statuary in the auditorium of Klarman Hall.
Italian composer Agostino Agazzari wrote the opera “Eumelio” in 1606, but the work was never widely produced and was one of few such works of the era to lack a modern edition. Until now.
The opera, in three acts, is an invented fable based on the Orpheus myth and was a marquee event in the College of Arts and Sciences’ New Century for the Humanities celebration, which culminates May 26 with the formal dedication of Klarman Hall.
It began with Zaslaw’s graduate seminar in Baroque music, which he decided to structure around ”Eumelio.”
“This was a potential opportunity for a seminar to do something genuinely original and add to human knowledge,” Zaslaw said. After the students produced a modern edition of the opera (which will be published), “given the early-music chops of several of our current Ph.D. students, a performance seemed logical.”
One of those doctoral students with early-music chops is David H. Miller, who wasn’t part of the seminar but soon signed on to produce the opera.
“I enjoy the process of starting with an idea and building it piece by piece, bringing people in and seeing how if shifts over time,” Miller said. The production included 30 undergraduates from Cornell and Ithaca College, 15 graduate students, a few faculty members and three professional soloists: Lucy Fitz Gibbon, a visiting lecturer at Cornell; Marc Webster, an Ithaca College voice faculty member; and soprano Rebecca Leistikow.
“In the story of ‘Eumelio’ we see the ease by which we can slip from confidence into doubt and from self-satisfying pleasure into ruin,” Fitz Gibbon said. “We also see devotion and love, and calls for action to circumvent despair. None of these things are strangers to us today, even 410 years later.”
The chorus comprised members of the Cornell Chamber Singers, students who were challenged to learn Italian diction, grapple with Italian poetry and sing a piece without benefit of a recording to refer to, because none exist.
“Throwing them into a 400-year-old work that doesn’t have this rote possibility for learning is very significant,” said Stephen Spinelli, a music lecturer and Chamber Singers director. Another challenge was interpreting the archaic notation, which includes some symbols no longer in use as well as others whose meaning has evolved. And along the way, at least one of the time signatures in a song was changed.
“The Chamber Singers have been working on learning the work since the beginning of the semester, so we’re now working on text expression and representing the character shifts to spirits and vices,” said Emily Gustafson ’16. “The whole project combines university ensemble performance, graduate research and faculty direction and counsel that exemplifies the collaborative culture of Cornell.”
Teaching students about works like this one is an important part of a liberal arts education, Zaslaw said.
“Students are so much in the present that they can have little sense of how things were,” he said. “Our job is to help them see these works as people saw them when they were new.”
Said Spinelli: “This isn’t a museum; this is real, living music. This was the vernacular language and cutting-edge pop music for someone of that time.”
Since the production was staged in the auditorium in Klarman Hall, the setting and props needed to be fairly easy to move back and forth.
The college’s plaster cast collection played a role in the production, said stage director Gary Moulsdale. And because the auditorium in Klarman is an academic amphitheater – not a dedicated theater space – instead of complicated costume or set changes, singers carried or wore items to signify changing roles, from shepherds to demons, for example.
The production was sponsored by the Department of Music, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Bartels Co-Sponsorship, the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, the Cornell Institute for European Studies, the Department of Romance Studies, the Graduate Professional Student Assembly Finance Commission and the Religious Studies Program.
This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.