Spoleto’s premiere of 'Farnace' brings a cinematic scale to the theater 

Going big

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo stars in Farnace

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Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo stars in Farnace

There are several moments of darkness in Farnace, but the show itself never falls prey to the despair felt by its characters.

The story of a family pulled apart by war, this is to be expected. At perhaps his lowest point, Farnace, the fallen ruler powerfully portrayed by Anthony Roth Costanzo, kneels before his own portrait draped in black as he mourns the loss of a loved one. At this moment, the music swells, and the backdrop of the ocean behind him shifts. Costanzo looks to the sea, the water stained the color of blood, the sky a jaundiced yellow — all credit to lighting designer James Ingalls, who communicates the passage of day into night and passion into rage.

Lit by a single bulb hanging in her prison cell, the audience finds Farnace’s sister, Selinda, played with grit and complexity by Naomi Louisa O’Connell. Imprisoned by the Roman forces that have invaded her home, Selinda finds herself the object of affection of two generals — the powerful Aquilio (Kyle Pfortmiller) and the compassionate Gilade (Augusta Caso). The show’s moments of true tenderness take place between Connell and Caso, as Gilade woos Selinda, but as the sister of Farnace, Selinda never forgets her position under the new regime and conspires to pit her two suitors against themselves and their ruler.

Sitting in front of me in the theater was a father and his young son. Occasionally, throughout the show, the father would look over at his son to check as to whether the opera had kept his interest. It wasn’t until after the performance of Farnace that the father got his answer. Waiting to exit the theater with his son, the father asked, “What was your favorite part?” — slightly hesitant, fearing that he had just subjected his son to almost three hours of tedium at the theater.

But if this production of Farnace accomplishes anything, it is keeping the audience enthralled. Invading soldiers slice through backdrops as they seize Farnace’s kingdom. The former ruler himself appears in the balcony of the theater to unleash a volley of gunfire at the stage. While Farnace is willing to mine the despair of its characters for dramatic effect, the show excels when it is sweeping forward — the music pumping and bouncing (led by Conductor David Peter Bates). It’s rare that the score of Vivaldi’s Farnace slows, and it is when the events of the storyline match this pace that the show reaches new heights.

As they navigated their way out of the theater, the son finally answered his father’s question regarding his favorite parts of Farnace. Along with Pfortmiller’s proud but gullible Aquillio, Farnace’s youngest audience member named the villainous Berenice as the part of the show he most enjoyed. Played with Disney-like villainy by Kiera Duffy, Berenice is truly the evil queen of all of Furnace’s warring kingdoms.

Farnace’s mother-in-law, Berenice has conspired with the invading Romans and demands the fallen ruler’s head. Her thirst for revenge is often stifled by the level-headed Roman leader Pompeo (Nicholas Tamagna). If Berenice can’t have Farnace’s head, she calls for the death of his son — her grandson. Drawn into the middle of all this is Tamiri. The wife of Farnace, daughter of Berenice, finds herself forced to abandon all these familial duties in order to uphold her responsibility as a mother. Supported by a performance from Cassandra Zoe Velasco that is equal parts tortured and courageous, Tamiri’s decision to spare her son ultimately proves the key to preserving a happy ending for all those involved. Showing that sometimes, when the stage is full of bloodshed, it’s best to look to a child for a healthy resolution — or just getting his opinion on the latest night at the opera.

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