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Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera]
07 Oct 2013

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Once again, one can only applaud English Touring Opera’s sense of adventure — and commitment. Its autumn season comprises three Venetian operas: L’incoronazione di Poppea, Giasone, and Agrippina, all in translation.

Giasone, ETO

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera]


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 Grove 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 Colco). 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 œuvre. 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 René 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 details.

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.

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