"Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go!" goes the famous quote by legendary Hollywood director Billy Wilder – Sunset Boulevard, Some like it Hot, and Double Indemnity among his masterpieces – who regularly dispensed stellar advice to aspiring, young writers. Unlike good screenwriting, opera’s blood and thunder decree doesn’t need much coaching to bare its jugular. So when the newly-formed, Made-in-Italy opera company, Coin du Roi, kicked off its inaugural season on May 28 with Handel's Serse at the intimate Teatro Litta in Milan’s historic Magenta neighborhood, it was a bafflingly bloodless affair.

Vilija Mikstaite (Serse) © Aldo Pavoni
Vilija Mikstaite (Serse)
© Aldo Pavoni

Created by young artists and administrators, all under-30, the privately-funded “Société d'Opéra” polishes Baroque operas into HIP (historically informed performance) expositions. Unlike modern programming that targets young audiences with dressed-down, boutique performances in unorthodox settings, Coin du Roi seeks to emulate the decadent, 18th century Baroque opera grandeur with themed parties and gala dinners in exclusive venues.

The audacious, Baroque juggernaut falls between courage, tenacity and luck (and a bit of madness). It’s no small feat to establish, frankly, anything under Italy’s grizzly bureaucracies and hurdles, marked by domestic hardships such as bankrupt arts organizations, economic stagnancy and record youth unemployment (43.10 percent in March 2015 as reported by the EU Labour Force Survey).

Small miracles abound – an opera company was born. Milan last heard Handel's rare stab into satire and irony in 1962 at Teatro alla Scala. Merit to an anonymous libretto (after Silvio Stampiglia and Nicolò Minato refinements), it’s one of Handel’s final Italian operas in the commedia dell'arte tradition, which premiered in April 1738 at the King's Theatre in London, castrato Caffarelli in the title role.

Viktorija Bakan and Jud Perry © Aldo Pavoni
Viktorija Bakan and Jud Perry
© Aldo Pavoni

In Teatro Litta’s pocket-square orchestra pit, conductor Christian Frattima led the young Coin du Roi Orchestra (on period instruments in its uncut version) through broad, beefy, languidly-paced legatos with confident drive and garrulous texture. Harpsichordist Giorgio dal Monte stitched together the uneven, monochromatically-shaded soloists, which scored mixed marks for wavering concentration – sagging strings sawed inelegant and lugubrious at their most distracted moments. From the balcony, choirmaster Marco Berrini led the Ars Cantica Choir in expressive, coherent joy.

Director Valentino Klose's new production deflected political satire and cited the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire thrown by the Shah of Iran in Persepolis in 1971, yet Alessandra Boffelli Serbolisca’s costumes and sets created anachronistic atmospheres: Act I and II were dressed in modern, off-the-rack, Midtown Manhattan office casual blazers and buttoned-up menswear or little black dresses and stilettos.

Modest sets juggled Milan, Venice and Persepolis iconography – Art liberté stained glass, Venetian gothic arches and Achaemenid Period griffins, respectively. Act III rolled out the heavy artillery – lavish ballroom pageantry framed by chandeliers and red velvet curtains, crêpe de chine gowns, military dress bound by gold epaulettes, and white gloves reflected in silver champagne urns.

Claudio Ottino (Elviro) and Jud Perry (Arsamene) © Aldo Pavoni
Claudio Ottino (Elviro) and Jud Perry (Arsamene)
© Aldo Pavoni

Buttoned into dark menswear, ponytailed Vilija Mikštaitė sang a focused, confident Serse with an insouciant smirk and swagger over a sarcastic brow. She dissected “Ombra mai fu” in intelligent, unhurried measures and adroitly adorned “Se bramate d'amar chi vi sdegna”, but her vocal color sometimes lacked nuance despite a meaty, warm-blooded tonality, unflagging stamina and technical perspicacity.

Contralto Jud Perry, marked by lithe grace and magnetism, sung an engaging Arsamene, highlighted by a meticulously-forged “Non so, se sia la speme”. Despite the expressive, high-color vocal shading of Viktorija Bakan’s Romilda, an indecisive, stilted and tightly-wound exterior marred her interpretation, especially the "L'amerò? non fia vero” fire.

With a quirky, spirited, soubrette spark, Arianna Stornello’s Atalanta floated florid top notes above levity; as the buffo servant, Claudio Ottino's Elviro mastered affable, accessible theatrical language over a light, lyric bass; Alessandra Visentin sang a dignified, anchored Amastre in rich, soft, warm tonalities; and Stefano Cianci's resonantly-timber, bright-smiled Ariodate struggled in dawdling yawns.

The post-summer season reconvenes with Mozart’s Il re pastore in October and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona/Livietta e Tracollo in December. Hopefully the summer break’s unbuttoning will be a good reminder that youth demands expression. Grab ‘em by the throat.

Serse at Teatro Litta Milan on 29 May 2015 © Aldo Pavoni
Serse at Teatro Litta Milan on 29 May 2015
© Aldo Pavoni
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