Giovanni Bononcini’s oratorio San Nicola di Bari
“The whole performance seemed tailored to the present moment, as it breathed melodious life into a dusty manuscript that had waited 300 years to be so up-to-date.” —New York Classical Review
The Big Picture
This December, the Academy of Sacred Drama presents holiday performances of historic significance: the New York premiere of a musical drama by Giovanni Bononcini, his oratorio San Nicola di Bari (1693). This tale of St. Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus) reveals the untold story of his early life—before he became known for giving gifts in secret.
The composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747), a contemporary of G.F. Handel, had an international career and was one of most celebrated composers of his day. His ongoing collaboration with the librettist Silvio Stampiglia (1664–1725) resulted in multiple operas and the oratorio San Nicola di Bari. As one of the founding members of the Accademia dell’Arcadia, Stampiglia worked to reform Italian poetry of its worst Baroque excesses. This oratorio represents the Accademia’s new standards of taste.
In an effort to honor that sense of taste and appeal to the developed rhetorical medium of the late Baroque, the Academy’s performances incorporate emotive gestures and subtle movement-based staging. After seeing one of the Academy’s performances, an audience member remarked, “Opera has never appealed to me, but I think that oratorio is my thing!”
Preparing for the Performances
Preparing for performances of oratorios—musical dramas written about legendary sacred subject material—is more like preparing for a play or a musical than a concert. Each of the singers works in advance to understand the story as a whole and embody their character. Character development is partially a matter of personal taste on the part of the singer and partially something that is worked into a larger vision by the music and movement directors.
The whole production is musical—sung in Italian with English translations in the program. The music is divided between arias (or songs) and movements of recitative (which sound more like musical speech). All the action happens in the recits, and reflections on those events take place during the arias—much like dialogue in a Broadway musical would be organized.
We have an exciting cast for St. Nicholas: Christina Kay, soprano, is cast as St. Nicholas, and Madeline Healey, soprano, plays the role of Giovanna—St. Nicholas’s mother. Andrew Leslie Cooper, countertenor, appears as Clizio—a fellow student of St. Nicholas, and Steven Hrycelak, bass-baritone, is Epifanio—St. Nicholas’s father.
It might seem surprising that a woman would be playing the role of a young Santa Claus, but this decision has been made because of the high vocal range of the part. When this music was written, a castrati—a castrated male—sang the role of St. Nicholas. Many of the most famous performers of the time were castrati, and many castrati were superstars. Audiences flocked to hear these high male voices play masculine roles. Some might consider androgynous Korean boy bands like BTS an equivalent phenomenon today.
A month or so before the final week of rehearsals and performances, the singers get together with the directors to work on their recitatives and start to develop a system for thinking about movement in the production. The recits are often complex, with a lot of ideas that have to be taken apart. In the Academy productions, Adam Cockerham, the associate artistic director, leads the preliminary rehearsals from a plucked instrument from antiquity called a theorbo.
Tony Lopresti, a classically-trained mime, leads movement workshops during this initial period to start getting the singers to think about how to communicate ideas from the text and music with movement. Oratorios traditionally do not have scenery or costumes, so the storyline has to be communicated entirely through movement and music.
Finally, the week of the performances, everyone involved in the production gets together to spend a couple of days working primarily on the music. The next two days are devoted to movement and polishing the music, and then it is time for the performances.
What to Expect
When you arrive, look for St. Nicholas signs and the Academy of Sacred Drama harp logo. At the entrance to the performance space, an usher will scan your ticket and give you a program. Some tickets will be available for purchase at the door if you did not buy them in advance. We strongly recommend that you buy your tickets in advance, however, so we can reduce bottlenecks at the door and start the production on time.
Besides a designated section at the front of the venue for premium ticket holders (marked with yellow ribbons), seating is unassigned. So the earlier you arrive, the better seats you can get! Early arrivals might even be able to hear some holiday favorites before the main performance.
The main production is entirely musical—sung in Italian with English translations in the program. Now that Netflix has made watching shows with subtitles more mainstream, we hope you will be comfortable with this format.
About halfway through the approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes of music, there will be a 15 minute intermission. Intermission is an opportunity to chat with your friends and neighbors and to take a bathroom break.
After the performance, you will be able to greet many of the performers before you leave. In Scarsdale, there will be a reception, and, in New York City, we will thank you as you depart. There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from finishing a large production. But we will soon be preparing for our next production, A Change of Heart, which we will present in late March 2023.
As a final note, there is no dress code for our performances. Some people celebrate in semi-formal attire while others prefer a Christmas sweater. Just focus on having a good time the way your prefer. We are gratified that you would join us for this rare gem of the forgotten musical past.