Royal College of Music
4 October 2013
The second scene of a Belgian production a few years ago. From here.
As the director of this season of baroque Venetian operas points out, Venice was the true birthplace of opera as we typically know it: the supreme bourgeois artform. It is striking that these early audiences seem well-tuned to our current sensibilities.
What I mean is that Cavalli shows even less respect for the heroic than our modern producers of heroic opera, if that is possible. He and librettist Cicognini populate this work with characters and situations that have a vague link to the classical myths of Jason and Medea, but the story is really about a cheating and callous husband.
Quite how callous ‘mighty Jason’ is only becomes obvious at quite a late stage in this production, when he arranges the murder of his pregnant unloved wife Isiphile, and is genuinely angry when he discovers she survives.
That his conscience is finally touched, permitting a ludicrous happy ending, is not especially significant. Isiphile is an early and very successful entry in the quintessentially Italian line of suffering operatic women.
The composer is in no doubt as to where Jason’s true sympathies lie – the love music for Jason and Medea is potently erotic, though the music for Isiphile in torment is equally moving.
At this point a word about the orchestration, or lack of it. With only a double handful of instrumentalists, the effect is less of an orchestra than of a chamber ensemble. It’s a distinctive feature of seventeenth century opera, and especially the way we currently perform it.
Cavalli is a little different from his teacher Monteverdi, with a simpler emotional approach, so would seem to benefit from the greater sweep of a fuller orchestra. It’s the approach that helped revive him in the first place, under Raymond Leppard, and it is still worth hearing.
Removed from the stage picture, on recordings, Leppard’s fuller approach is surely more involving. With a good staging, as here, the original instrumentation is mightily effective.
Director Ted Huffman presents the work in a single set, a grand domestic interior that welcomes Jason’s bigamous marriage in the first act, and is depicted as decaying in the second. It makes the point clearly, but inevitably loses something of the zany grandeur that would have been present in the original productions.
He might also have given more help to the singers in their acting. Catrine Kirkman’s Isiphile was sung well, but was left with too long stretches of standing and beseeching, resulting in too much eye rolling and the like.
Clint Van der Linde’s Jason had a similar problem, though I also wasn’t enamoured of his countertenor voice. Other cast members were admirable, especially the student singing the comic stutterer Demus – I didn’t catch his name.
Actually Demus is almost a show stealer, as his stuttering allows Cavalli to parody the bleat that is otherwise used in his proto-arias to express high emotion. That this difficult feat was almost captured in Ronald Eyre’s translation is high compliment to it.