SOMERVILLE — At first blush the city’s bustling early music scene might not appear to have many artistic niches unclaimed. Yet a new group, Helios Early Opera, has recently staked out one of them, focusing on lesser-known repertoire served up in avowedly modern stagings, which themselves take place in unusual venues. When Helios recently staged Telemann’s “Pimpinone” at the Goodlife Bar, the group’s website made a seldom-heard case for the sybaritic side of period authenticity: “18th-century opera-goers enjoyed food and drink during performances, so why shouldn’t you?”
On Friday night at Somerville’s Center for Arts at the Armory, Helios offered Cavalli’s “Artemisia,” its third production to date, this one billed as a North American premiere.
“Artemisia” was first introduced in 1657 in Venice, a time and place when opera was descending from its lofty heights to reach a broader public beyond the court. Cavalli was one of the most prolific among the new generation of composers, though many of his works have not survived, in part because they were written not for posterity but for an opera-besotted public craving something new. The plots contained what can seem to our modern sensibilities a strange mix of high and low subjects jumbled together, or as Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker summarized in their recent history, “boredom and myth, suicide and farce, existential crisis and buffoonery” could all find their way into a single work.
That’s not a bad précis of the subjects treated in “Artemisia,” which offers a hapless parade of lovelorn characters, beginning with the widowed Artemisia herself, who pines for her servant, though he is really Meraspe in disguise — a man suspected of murdering her husband. On Friday, stage director Aria Umezawa set the story in modern-day Hollywood, spiking the libretto translation with contemporary references to Perez Hilton, YouTube, ICM, text messaging, and the like. The youthful audience of some 100 souls appeared to enjoy the references, though at a few moments, the interpolated glibness seemed to undercut the sincerity of the music.
What ultimately held the night together was the refined and flexible playing of the period chamber orchestra (Dylan Sauerwald and Zoe Weiss are the Helios music directors), and the largely compelling singing from the young cast that included Julianne Gearhart in the title role, alongside Andrew Pickett, Dawn Bailey, Margot Rood, Erika Vogel, Elizabeth Merrill, Raquel Winnica-Young, Gerrod Pagenkopf, Marcio de Oliveira, and William Prapestis. Cavalli’s overstuffed score contains several wonderful arias, though the point of course was not to find the next 17th-century blockbuster, or to argue that this staging would be the only alternative to the high-gloss, impeccably period productions of the Boston Early Music Festival. Helios is expanding the field of what’s on offer locally in early opera — and for this, already, we can be grateful.