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Modern sensibilities: ‘Armida Project’ offers new take on Baroque operatic character at Academy of Music in Northampton

  • Russian native Julia Lima sings the role ofArmida.
  • The Armida Project
  • "The Armida Project" melds traditional operatic costumes with funky modern details.
  • "The Armida Project"
  • "The Armida Project"

She’s been the central character in many an opera: a beautiful woman who falls in love with a man she’s been sent to kill, only to be left alone by story’s end with a broken heart.

But the production team behind “The Armida Project” has a different vision for this Baroque-era heroine.

“The Armida Project,” which takes place Saturday night at the Academy of Music in Northampton, is both a nod to traditional opera and a pastiche of it, merging classic Baroque arias with electronic music and a storyline that embraces humor, irony and other modern sensibilities.

The two-hour show, which begins at 8 p.m., also has an unusual international pedigree: It’s the work of a Russian native living in New York, who fell in love with Italian opera but wrote his treatment for “The Armida Project” in English, then had one of his cast members, Emanuele Cesare, an Italian also living in New York, translate the script into Italian. There’s also a local connection: lighting designer Jessica Greenberg lives in Amherst.

Above all, says director and choreographer Igor Konyukhov, “The Armida Project” is designed to pay homage to the music of Baroque opera and its traditions, but to do so in way that’s more accessible to a modern audience.

“In Baroque opera, you tend to have a lot of very strong emotions,” Konyukhov said in a recent interview. “The characters [in the arias] will sing about how sad they are, how angry they are. ... In my production, I take all these emotions, but try to present it in a more modern, easy-to-relate way.

“I take a more ironic approach,” he added. “The first act is really a comedy, the second is a parody of the damsel in distress. ... We’re poking fun at stereotypes, trying to break the boundaries of these characters that are really set in operas.”

The character of Armida herself first surfaced in a 16th-century work by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, who envisioned her as a Saracen sorceress sent to murder a Christian soldier, Rinaldo, during the First Crusade. About to cut the throat of the handsome, sleeping Rinaldo, Armida instead falls in love with him. She creates an enchanted garden and spirits him there, holding him as a lovesick prisoner.

Eventually, though, two of Rinaldo’s fellow Crusaders find him and get him to leave the garden by holding a shield to his face, forcing him to see his reflection and recall who he is and where his duty lies. Armida is left broken-hearted and bereft.

That story has been the centerpiece of more than 30 operas, Konyukhov says, including some that date back centuries, and a few modern ones. A British version from 2005, for instance, envisioned the Rinaldo character as a Western solider in an unnamed Mideast country — presumably Iraq — who’s conflicted about his role, and who meets a female Muslim war reporter who has doubts about her profession.

In “The Armida Project,” Armida is a New York librarian who “is having a quite boring life,” Konyukhov said. “She complains to her friend, who is a more successful librarian, and says, ‘I want to meet someone special, a prince who will come and save me.’ ”

Armida then meets a handsome college student, played by the Italian translator, Cesare, and falls in love with him, thinking he has just the qualities she seeks. But the story also takes place partly when she dreams, and conflict erupts in that sequence when an “evil guy” tries to woo her and plants seeds of doubt in the mind of her other suitor, played in the dream by tenor Dimtry Gishpling-Chernov.

“I followed the classical Baroque structure,” Konyukhov said with a laugh. “The guy she loves is a tenor, the evil guy is a baritone.”

In the end, Armida decides she’ll be fine on her own, and doesn’t need anyone to rescue her — in her dreams or in real life. “In that sense, she is a more modern woman, strong but also independent,” Konyukhov said.

Classical arias

“The Armida Project,” with a somewhat different form and title, made its debut last year in New York, but its origins go back further. Konyukhov, who has master’s degrees in nuclear physics and fine arts, is also a trained ballet dancer who merged his interests in movement and opera in 2011, when he choreographed a Berlin production of the German opera “Der Vampyr.”

Gishpling-Chernov, a Russian native who lives in Berlin and performs in Europe, sang one of the lead roles in that production and formed a strong bond with Konyukhov, who in turn recruited him to come to New York to take part in “The Armida Project.”

The new opera has particular appeal, Gishpling-Chernov says, because for all its modern elements and ironic sensibility, it keeps faith with the classical arias that make up the backbone of the story.

“We are making this with great respect to the music,” he said. “The singing is very high quality, very intense. This is personally a great opportunity for me.

“I’ve done these kinds of projects sometimes with directors who don’t have a full understanding of the music,” he added. “That is not an issue with Igor.”

Konyukhov says he’s incorporated famous and less well-known arias, from composers such as Händel, Vivaldi and Monteverdi, that thematically tell the story; these are sung entirely as originally written, he notes. Connecting these “islands of arias” is the text that Konyukhov has written, which in turn is supported by electronic music written by Polish composer Jakub Ciupinksi.

“We use his music to set the mood for each aria to come,” Konyukhov said.

Visually, the production melds traditional operatic costumes with funky modern details, which were made by a New York fashion designer. “She created the kind of look that gives references to the past, but not literally,” Konyukhov added.

“The Armida Project” is also distinguished by the international makeup of cast and supporting personnel. Armida is played by soprano Julia Lima, another Russian native (and former teenage music contest winner there) now living in New York, whose career as a classical singer is “really taking off,” Konyukhov said. American mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky plays another key role, as does Albanian baritone Kreshnik Zhabjaku.

The supporting musicians are primarily American but also include a Spaniard. They specialize in Baroque music and feature noted New York harpsichordist Kelly Savage.

The opera also offers super titles in English, which are projected above the stage.

The idea of doing a Valley staging came about last summer after Konyukhov, who was visiting a friend in Florence, saw the Academy of Music and thought it would be a good venue for the show. Cesare agrees, saying the acoustics seem very good and that the academy’s size — 800 seats — “is very much like the size of opera houses in Europe.” Also, lighting designer Greenberg offered another local connection.

Konyukhov said he met with Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz to give him 100 tickets to distribute for free to the community.

“This is our his first show outside of New York,” he said, adding that he hopes eventually to bring the project to Germany and maybe Israel. “The community here seems very open to different things, to the arts. We hope they like it.”

“The Armida Project” will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. Tickets cost $15, $18, $20, $25; $18 for students; $12 for children under 12. To reserve, visit www.academyofmusictheatre.com or call 584-9032, ext. 105.

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