Ars Minerva - "Messalina"
Aura Veruni as Messalina and Deborah Rosengaus as Claudio at a bath house in Ars Minerva’s Messalina | Credit: Valentina Sadioul

Seventeenth-century Venice was opera-mad, as the city’s nine opera houses competed for pleasure-hungry patrons and singers, costumers, and set designers reveled in the feeding frenzy. Most of their work has been buried for centuries, but since 2015, the Bay Area’s Ars Minerva has been devoted to unearthing these lost gems. Last weekend the company treated us to Carlo Pallavicino’s Messalina (1679–1680), which ran for three performances at San Francisco’s intimate ODC Theater.

History depicts the first-century Roman empress Messalina as a lust-driven adulterer and prostitute, and the opera doesn’t flinch from that: She creates a whirlpool of (largely interrupted) assignations. Her husband, the emperor Claudius, is horny, too, and willing to stop at nothing to get his piece of the action. In fact, most of the palace is looking to hook up. The mood is comic, but with a dark side: No one actually gets raped or killed, but it’s not for want of trying.

Ars Minerva - "Messalina"
Aura Veruni as Messalina and Marcus Paige as her attendant Lismeno in Ars Minerva’s Messalina | Credit: Valentina Sadioul

Ars Minerva’s Messalina was steamy, tuneful, and above all imaginative — just what the score calls for. Céline Ricci’s staging was full of surprises and delights, supported by Baroque-inflected backdrop projections painted by designer Entropy, and by Marina Polakoff’s stunning costumes. Clever supertitles by Joe McClinton sensitively supported the vocal lines and made the action as comprehensible as the bizarre plot allowed.

At the center was Messalina — a character obsessed with sex and flamboyantly eager and inventive in trying to get it. Soprano Aura Veruni (whom I last saw in West Edge Opera’s Eliogabalo) proved a perfect Messalina: sharp-witted, funny, and nimble in acting and voice, eating up every scene she appeared in. Her outré outfits ranged from a faux-nude bodysuit with a fluffy pink cache-sexe, to a spectacular tulip-shaped headdress that was seductively opened to become a bizarre ruff. Veruni’s final appearance in a grand hooped skirt made of gleaming gold balloons and fairy-lights gave the opera an unabashedly campy ending.

Ars Minerva - "Messalina"
Deborah Rosengaus as the Emperor Claudio and Shawnette Sulker as Floralba in Ars Minerva’s Messalina | Credit: Valentina Sadioul

The emperor Claudio was acted by mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus with delicious insouciance, alternating with rampant lustiness. Rosengaus adeptly delivered her arias with precision and zest, while also engaging in some intricate stage business, often involving cigarettes (history be damned!).

Ars Minerva - "Messalina"
Shawnette Sulker as Floralba in Ars Minerva’s Messalina | Credit: Valentina Sadioul

Tenor Kevin Gino brought passion to the role of Tullio (an aide to the emperor), whose marital insecurity and self-doubt allowed a more serious take than with the imperial couple. His rage was the occasion for several stirring arias. Caught in his anger was his wife Floralba, probably the only monogamous character in the opera; soprano Shawnette Sulker gracefully voiced her sorrow at her husband’s out-of-control jealousy.

Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Floralba’s sister Erginda who, betrayed by her fiancé Tergisto, has disguised herself in drag as a man, only to find herself pursued by the predatory Messalina. Scharich had some of the most moving arias, which she sang with quiet and affecting intensity, and also contributed some fine comic acting. As Erginda’s wayward lover, baritone Zachary Gordin — known locally as artistic director of Festival Opera — contributed one of the emotional highlights of the evening, the scene where he learns that the man he had known as Alindo was in fact the woman he had betrayed.

Tenor Patrick Hagan sang the role of Messalina’s heartthrob Caio, lyrically expressing his love for her despite the constant turns of plot that thwart their intended affair. Tenor Marcus Paige as Lismeno, the palace assistant, was nimble in voice and staging, trying valiantly — and cynically — to keep the emperor and empress from discovering the other’s shenanigans.

Ars Minerva - "Messalina"
A page from Pallavicino's score for Messalina: An Act One recit and aria for Claudio | Courtesy of IMSLP

Pallavicino’s music is well-suited to this fast-moving and unpredictable story: Recitatives push the plot, and short arias reflect on the emotions. Unlike the operas of Handel with their more long-winded arias, Pallavicino’s can turn the mood swiftly — now lyrical, now angry or pleading. For a good part of the opera, the score gives the orchestra only a bass line, here dramatically rendered by an excellent continuo section of Adam Cockerham on theorbo, Gretchen Claassen on cello, and music director and conductor Jory Vinikour on harpsichord. Arias are punctuated by brief, vivid ritornellos scored for three upper strings (Cynthia Keiko Black, Laura Jeannin, and Aaron Westman).

Bringing early opera to life involves yet another act of imagination: finding and retrieving the score itself. The bulk of early opera exists only in manuscript. Kudos to Ars Minerva and Philippe LeRoy for transcribing Messalina and for making its score available for future productions!

One final note about length: in the age of the pandemic, I am not sure audiences have the stamina to enjoy such long works, however tuneful and lively, at their full original length. Ars Minerva did trim the score somewhat, but a few more cuts would have helped me to focus on this creative production.