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<em>Hipermestra</em>, Glyndebourne Festival Opera
21 May 2017

Cavalli's Hipermestra at Glyndebourne

‘Make war not love’, might be a fitting subtitle for Francesco Cavalli’s opera Hipermestra in which the eponymous princess chooses matrimonial loyalty over filial duty and so triggers a war which brings about the destruction of Argos and the deaths of its inhabitants.

Hipermestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Above: Hipermestra (Emőke Baráth) and Elisa (Ana Quintans)

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton


Blood on white sheets usually denotes deflowered brides but in Giovanni Andrea Moniglia’s libretto, derived from Aeschylus’s Danaid trilogy, it’s a symbol of decapitated husbands. This libretto has many streams of tears and red rivers of blood.

Pre-curtain-up the nuptial signs seemed favourable. Just as Pippa Middleton was getting hitched to a moneyed financier in Berkshire so, amid the rolling Sussex Downs, 50 white-frocked brides were marrying 50 sheikhs, resplendent in red keffiyehs and designer shades, the couples parading their finery in the gardens of Glyndebourne. But, once inside the House, the front curtain confirmed that these were the soon-to-be-slaughtered betrotheds of Danao’s daughters.

Cavalli’s grandiose three-act festa teatrale is an example of a pan-European dramma regio musicale which, like Cavalli’s and Bissari’s Bradamante - which was performed at the royal palace in Milan in 1658 - celebrated the birth of Prince Philip Prosper, the Spanish Infanta. Hipermestra had in fact been completed four years before its June 1658 premiere; it had originally been commissioned to celebrate the birthday of the Grand Duchess Vittoria Della Rovere, wife of Ferdinand II de’Medici, in 1654, but the re-design of the Florentine Pergola theatre, together with organisation and financial difficulties - and the threat of plague - led to it being postponed and its dedicatee changed.

The opera conforms to what Ellen Rosand (in Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice) describes as the ‘Faustini formula’ - after librettist Giovanni Faustini (1615-51): it narrates the history of ‘two pairs of lovers, surrounded by a variety comic characters, whose adventures involved separation and eventual reunion’.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-2493.jpgHipermestra (Emőke Baráth). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

King Danao, chased from Libya by the 50 sons of his brother, Egitto, has fled to safety in Argos, of which he later becomes King. Informed by an oracle that he will lose his life at the hands of one of his nephews, he commands his own 50 daughters to wed their cousins and kill his would-be assassins in their marital beds. However, Danao’s eldest daughter, Hipermestra, has fallen in love with Linceo and, revealing the threat to his life, helps him escape; her betrayal leads to her imprisonment. Linceo returns with a vast army to free his wife and destroy Danao, but jealous desire - in the form of Arbante who covets Hipermestra and denies his own wife, Elisa - intervenes: false accusations of infidelity and apocalyptic carnage ensue. Believing Hipermestra to be faithless and dead, Linceo seeks solace with Elisa, but saved from self-sacrifice by a magical bird who scoops her up as she falls from a tower, Hipermestra is ultimately reunited with Linceo.

No expense was spared for the first performances of this opera. The sets were by Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1689) and the detailed drawings of Stefano della Bella’s costume sketches (see the British Museum online ), which specify particular fabrics, colours, embroidered lace and jewels, testify to the care lavished.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-47.jpg Hipermestra (Emőke Baráth). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Stuart Nunn’s design and Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting are similarly rich and detailed. Multiple locations in Acts 1 and 2 are framed within the angled black-gold colonnades and porticos of Danao’s Arabian palace. East mingles with West, and past with present, much like any modern Middle Eastern state, I guess. Natty cerise outfits are shrouded in black hijabs; underneath sombre thwabs, business suits and glinting tie-pins attest to wealth and power. Director Graham Vick and his design team do not strive for direct parallels with modern Arab states or Caliphates. But, the links between oil-rich dynasties and oppressive regimes is clear: the women, even when permitted to momentarily voice ideals, beliefs, hopes, and to express desires, are quickly wrapped up in veils and abayas.

Act 1 opens in Danao’s garden, as the King oversees a circular parade of nuptial couples through a white and pink hoop of balloons: it’s an Alice in Wonderland illusion, all red roses and sparkling gold fairy-lights; the multi-tiered wedding-cake topped with sugar-icing Byzantine domes.

Nunn economically recreates the characterless luxury of a 5-star hotel bedroom, the rhythmically ‘in tune’ laundry where the tumble driers spin away bloodshed, and the stark sand-dunes where the pumping oil-rigs figuratively spew up black-slimed money. The desert garage where Danao Oil provides a petrol oasis - complete with Coca-Cola vending machine - is gate-crashed by Linceo’s armoured war truck, which spectacularly catches fire in Act 2. While the design is detailed, Vick’s direction is fairly laissez-faire: there’s a lot of lamenting and hand/head-wringing, prowling and machine-gun swinging, but the ‘arias’ themselves - such as they exist: Cavalli’s score is dominated by fluid arioso in which recitative and aria are barely distinguishable - are fairly inert, enlivened principally by quirky design features.

One challenge for the modern director is Cavalli’s blend of broad comedy and tragedy, a clash of sensibilities which jarred with contemporary audiences - at least those prone to aesthetic philosophising. In 1700, Giovanni Crescimbeni, spokesperson for the Accademia ’d’Arcadia, complained of Cicognini’s Giasone that, ‘with unparalleled monstrosity’, it mixed kings and heroes with buffoons and servants, resulting in a ‘hodgepodge of characters that caused the utter ruin of the poetic rules’ (cited in Readying Cavalli's Operas for the Stage, Rosand). Such complaints about the amalgam of tragic elements with farce led to the reforms associated with the poet Metastasio, which resulted in the ‘rules’ of opera seria.

Vick just about controls the schizophrenic lurching between farce and tragedy. The threat of imbalance is most forcefully represented by Hipermestra’s nurse, Berenice - played exuberantly by a bearded Mark Wilde. A clear descendant of Monteverdi’s Iro (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) and the wily old nurses of the commedia dell’arte, Wilde’s Berenice is a sly, pragmatic opportunist who forms a comic foil to the lovers’ idealism, jealousy and yearning; urging Elisa and Hipermestra to grab sexual fulfilment when it is on offer, Berenice disparages fidelity and steadfastness in favour of fickle self-gratification.

With more than a dash of Les Dawson’s handbag-swinging dames, Wilde’s Berenice confirms Jane Glover’s assertion (in her 1978 monograph on Cavalli) that the commedia-derived characters are more strongly characterised musically than their ‘serious’ mistresses and masters. And, Wilde uses his pliant tenor to add some realism: perhaps Hipermestra would be better advised to accept the handsome general Arbante’s marriage proposal than continue to lament the warring Linceo’s absence.

Wilde is boisterous and raucous, shoving musicians aside and launching himself amid the instrumentalists for a comic romp bewailing that ‘youth is wasted on the young’: after filching William Christie’s skull-cap and fondling his pate, Wilde scribbled down his mobile number and thrust it into the hands of a front-row audience member, signalling that he’d be expecting a call …

The 10-player ensemble, drawn from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, may be one of the smallest groups to accompany an opera at Glyndebourne, but they are in no way marginal to the action. Just as the singers prowl in their midst, they take to the stage, emphasising the fable-like quality of the opera. Nowhere is this fluidity more powerfully conveyed than at the start of Act 3 when, amid the ruins of Argos, a lone fiddler strikes up a musical call-to-arms: tentatively, the other musicians appeared, stepping over the blood-splattered bed, fractured furniture and collapsed columns to reassume their positions at the front of the stage. Anarchy is redeemed by culture, to misrepresent Matthew Arnold.

In the title role, Emőke Baráth seemed a little tentative initially, but her tone brightened and her voice relaxed. By the time we reached her Act 3 suicidal soliloquy she had mastered the move which Cavalli enacts in each lament from fragmented chromatic phrasing to more formal ‘aria’. Atop the broken walls of Argos, Baráth projected strongly. When she leapt to her ‘doom’, it was with startling alacrity that Juno’s peacock spooned up the falling suicide and bore her aloft to the lieto fine.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-1759.jpgLinceo (Raffaele Pe) and Arbante (Benjamin Hulett). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

At times I had difficulty reconciling the different vocal registers and colours with dramatic contexts. Raffaele Pe’s countertenor danced with light-weight frivolity when he and Hipermestra crawled out from beneath the frosted wedding cake; as he waited, with eager, self-preening lust, to consummate the marriage - teased for his haste - tenderness seemed lacking. And, in Act 3 Pe increasingly sounded hysterical rather than driven by hate-fuelled machismo: as the tessitura rose his voice sometimes lost strength and focus, and strayed sharp. But, these comments present an unduly negative portrait: overall, Pe captured the fervency and unpredictability which arises when devotion is undermined by disloyalty.

I admired Renato Dolcini’s Danao: a blend of Leontes and Lear, he is duped by oracle, demands duty from his daughter, and when defied disowns and punishes her - with scourges, chains and irons. Discovering that he has slaughtered the innocents while the guilty roam free, Dolcini was not afraid to give voice to growls and groans of self-castigation; finding that his daughter has betrayed him, he spat out plosive consonants of anger. Later, Dolcini conveyed the pathos of loss: no longer is he a father just a King, and soon he is not even that - like Lear, Danao finds his patriarchal and regal power dissolved, and with the advance of Linceo’s army anticipates ignominy and defeat.

Benjamin Hulett’s Arbante burns with Iago-like duplicity: the tenderness of his voice belies Arbante’s villainy. But, while Iago wants to destroy others, and what they covet, simply because they have a desire that he cannot recognise, in Act 3 Hullet reveals Arbante’s self-awareness with a lovely soft grain which he is not afraid to crack and strain when conveying recognition of his unredeemable evil. Ana Quintans is superb as Elisa, the glint to her soprano equal to the flash of Hipermestra’s redundant, disused knife.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-2645.jpgHipermestra (Emőke Baráth), Linceo (Raffaele Pe), Elisa (Ana Quintans) and Arbante (Benjamin Hulett). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The last contemporary performance of Hipermestra took place in 1680 in Pisa in a commercial theatre, 8 years after Cavalli’s death, and the first modern performance since the 17th century took place in Utrecht, in August 2006, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the renowned Early Music Festival. Glyndebourne have done Cavalli and us all a service in giving us another chance to hear this detailed, contradictory work.

In the closing stages, one character sings - ‘I’m not sure if this love is wise or if it’s insane,/The more I think about it the less I understand.’ One might say the same about Cavalli’s opera itself. But, Glyndebourne, Vick, Nunn and Christie embrace the anarchy and in so doing tell us a lot about ourselves.

Claire Seymour

Francesco Cavalli: Hipermestra

Linceo - Raffaele Pe, Hipermestra - Emőke Baráth, Arbante - Benjamin Hulett, Elisa - Ana Quintans, Berenice - Mark Wilde, Danao - Renato Dolcini, Vafrino - Anthony Gregory, Arsace - David Webb, Alindo/Delmiro - Alessandro Fisher; Director - Graham Vick, Conductor - William Christie, Designer - Stuart Nunn, Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (leader, Kati Debretzeni).

Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Saturday 20th May 2017.

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