Giasone, ETO

Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone,
or Jason, offered perhaps the most enticing prospect: an opera whose
historical importance can hardly be gainsaid, and yet which we rarely have
chance to hear. Giasone came more or less in the middle of the
astonishing period from 1639 to 1666, in which Cavalli composed no fewer than
forty operas. This drama musicale to a libretto by the Florentine
poet, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, their only such collaboration, was the tenth
and the most popular of Cavalli’s stage works, indeed the most frequently
performed of all seventeenth-century operas. Ellen Rosand’s New
entry lists, following the first, 1649 carnival performance at
Venice’s Teatro San Cassione, possible performances in Milan as soon as 1649
and 1650 and in Lucca in 1650; moreover, published libretti attest to revivals,
as Rosand’s list continues, in 1650 (Florence), 1651 (Bologna), 1652
(Florence), 1655 (Piacenza), 1658 (Vicenza), 1659 (Ferrara and Viterbo), 1660
(Milan and Velletri), 1661 (Naples), 1663 (Perugia), 1665 (Ancona), 1666
(Brescia), 1667 (Naples), 1671 (Rome, as Il novello Giasone,
edited by Stradella), 1672 (Naples), 1673 (Bologna), 1676 (Rome, again as
Il novello Giasone), 1678 (Reggio), 1685 (Genoa, as Il
trionfo d’Amor delle vendette
) and 1690 (Brescia, as Medea in
). Given that the history of seventeenth-century opera is often far
more the history of libretti than music, a surprisingly large number of those
performances have bequeathed scores to us. It may even have reached Vienna, and
though we know nothing of this particular opera having reached English shores,
a score of Cavalli’s Erismena in English translation suggests some
degree of knowledge of the Venetian master’s úuvre. Such, at any rate, was
the fame of Giasone, that it also became a rare example of an opera
inspiring a play rather than the other way around.

ETO’s production is severely cut, lasting just over two hours (including
an interval), offering slightly less than half of the work, if one judges by
the duration (3 hours, 55 minutes) of the recording by RenÈ Jacobs (so far as
I am aware the only such recording). There were times when I could not help but
wonder how much we might have benefited from hearing more, not simply in
musical terms, but also in terms of progression of the plot and development of
characters. By the same token, however, dramatic continuity was for the most
part admirably maintained; one experienced far more than a mere ‘taste’. We
should also do well to remind ourselves that the concept of the musical work
with respect to the seventeenth century is unstable and problematical. We are
not dealing with Tristan und Isolde here. One loses something in
translation, too, no doubt, but Ronald Eyre’s version proves admirable: rich
in vocabulary, as Anthony Hose’s programme appreciation noted, and in wit.

Such would go for nothing, of course, without performances to match. I
cannot deny my preference for modern instruments. However, if I may try to
leave that upon one side, not least in light of the sad impossibility of today
hearing seventeenth-century-repertoire so performed, the Old Street Band
offered a generally spirited account, intermittent sourness in the strings
notwithstanding. Continuo playing was for the most part colourful without
veering into exhibitionism, Joseph McHardy’s direction of ensemble from the
harpsichord well-paced and alert both to shifts and continuity in register —
that ever-fascinating relationship between aria, recitative, and what comes in
between. As Raymond Leppard once put it, Cavalli, ‘of all his contemporaries,
never lost sight of the early ideals of recitative as a form of intensely
heightened speech which, more than the aria, formed the basis for operatic
effectiveness. And at his best, although in a different way from Monteverdi,
his arias and ariosos grow out of and merge into the recitative-like jewels set
in a crown, but not separate from it.’ And in Rosand’s words, this time in
the programme, the arias of Giasone, ‘are specifically justified by
the dramatic circumstances: rather than undermining verisimilitude, they
promote it.’Both of those observations fitted very well with my
experience in the theatre, no mean feat.

The singers must also take a great deal of credit for that. Clint van der
Linde pulled off very well the tricky task of portraying a compromised, even at
times weak, character without vocal compromise or weakness. Indeed, his
countertenor Giasone offered a fascinating blend of vocal strength and
character fragility. Hannah Pedley and Catrine Kirkman proved just as
successful as his twin loves, Medea and Isifile: credible characters of flesh
and blood, emotionally as well as dramatically convincing. The travesty role
— always popular in Venetian opera of this time — of Delfa offered another
opportunity for a countertenor to shine, in this case Michal Czerniawski. Piotr
Lempa displayed to good effect his deep bass as Oreste, though some of his
vowels went a little awry. Peter Aisher, a Royal College of Music student, was
a late replacement for an ailing Stuart Hancock as Apollo and Demo; he took a
little time to get into his stride, the Prologue being somewhat barked, but as
time went on, showed considerable musical and theatrical ability.

Ted Huffman’s production mostly lets the action speak for itself. I was
not quite convinced by the mishmash of styles in terms of designs, whilst
appreciating his aim ‘to create a world that is neither classical nor
contemporary, but rater an invented world, constructed from recognisable
historical elements’. Abstraction might have worked better in that case, for
inevitably one begins to wonder why someone is dressed in clothes of a certain
period and someone else in those of another. Yet such matters do not really
distract, and the conversion of Samal Blak’s set for the first act into that
for the second proves both economical and dramatically effective. The decay of
Lemnos during the absence of the ‘hero’ and the waiting of his wife is
instantly, powerfully conveyed. Stage direction is for the most part keenly
observed, the balance between comedy and darker emotion well handled.
Documentation is excellent too, the programme offering a general essay by Guy
Dammann, as well as individual pieces on the three operas of the season.

ETO’s autumn tour takes in London, Rochester, Snape, Malvern, Crediton,
Bath, Harrogate, Durham, Newcastle, Buxton, Sheffield, Warwick, Cambridge, and
Exeter. Click here for

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Giasone: Clint van der Linde; Medea: Hannah Pedley; Isifile: Catrine
Kirkman; Ercole: Andrew Slater; Apollo/Demo: Peter Aisher; Deifa: Michal
Czerniawski; Egeo: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Oreste: Piotr Lempa. Director: Ted
Huffman; Samal Blak (designs); Ace McCarron (lighting). Old Street Band/Joseph
McHardy (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, Friday 4
October 2013.

image_description=Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Giasone, ETO
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera]