Francesco Cavalli - Erismena
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017
Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean Bellorini, Francesca Aspromonte, Carlo Vistoli, Susanna Hurrell, Jakub Józef Orliński, Alexander Miminoshvili, Lea Desandre, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Stuart Jackson, Tai Oney, Jonathan Abernethy
ARTE Concert - 12th July 2017
There are times I'm convinced that there is a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience in some of these early baroque and opera seria works. It's not just that the plots are needlessly intricate and difficult to unravel, but the names often all sound the same. So in addition to Erismena in Cavalli's opera of that name we have Erimante and Erineo, with an Ercinia appearing out of the woodwork when we thought her name was Alcesta, all of those becoming mixed up with Orimeno and Aldimira. And who the heck are Arminda and Artamene?
If I didn't know better I'd think the librettist was trying to cover over any plot weaknesses or lack of credibility in the extraordinary events and coincidences that take place in such works, but you can hardly accuse Cavalli of fudging the issue here with his gorgeous melodies and precise delineation of mood and character. Even if you are a little confused in places as one identity dissolves into another, disguises are dropped and genders are switched, in the masterful hands of Cavalli the changes just reflect a rich set of individuals who come together to create complex connections and bonds.
Breaking down the plot to its essentials in an effort to simplify (I'll try anyway) and focus on its themes, the fates of all of the characters revolve essentially - and not unexpectedly - around a king. Erimante the King of Armenia is haunted by a vision of an unknown warrior who he dreams will take his throne from him. At the same time, a wounded warrior has been discovered by Orimeno. He leaves the warrior with his beloved Aldimira and her nurse Alcesta, who helps cure the man's injuries. When Orimeno brings him to the king however, Erimante recognises the feared warrior of his dreams and orders Erineo to kill him.
Erineo however fails to carry out this task, leaving the warrior to fall into the hands of Aldimira, who has fallen in love with him. The warrior reveals his mission is to seek vengeance against Idraspe, who abandoned the warrior's 'sister' Erismena, although obviously we know that the warrior is Erismena herself disguised in a soldier's armour. Romantic complications are added to the whole affair - most of them involving the flighty Aldimira it has to be said - but there are further surprises in store since - no big surprise this one - Erismena is not the only one living under an assumed name or identity. Alesta, who is really the nurse Ercinia, eventually reveals all, including the fact that Erismena is the daughter of Erimante and as such the rightful heir to the throne rather than a threat to the king. See what I mean about the names?
Anyhow, safe to say that there are a lot more complications, identities and characters involved in the affairs in Armenia (Arminda and Artamene incidentally are only mentioned in passing otherwise it really would be impossible to unravel this one). To similarly simplify the essential theme of Cavalli's opera - and the whole disguises and unknown origins question of such operas - it's all about the search for identity, for understanding one's true nature. This realisation of course only comes about through some hard-earned life lessons, but in the case of Cavalli's Erismena, the work is considerably enriched by the types of characters involved and by the musical treatment that the composer creates for them.
Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting from the harpsichord of the Cappella Mediterranea brings out all those characteristics and moods with a sparseness and directness of means that only a skilled period instrument ensemble can do. What the Aix-en-Provence production reveals however is that the purity of young voices also play just as vital a role in bringing the themes of the work to the surface. It's immediately apparent from the moment that Susanna Hurrell's Aldimira and Francesca Aspromonte's 'warrior' Erismena sing the duet 'Occhi belli', revealing not only the the beauty of the sentiments but the naivety behind them. It's an opera that is all about youth.
Aldimira is flirtatious, capricious, inconstant, and has many lovers - she herself exemplifies one facet of the changeable nature of love and the instability of trust and fidelity. Erismena represents another side of love, one that has solidity of reason and is constant in purpose. People come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally here, particularly in the case of the old nurse, showing that love and its torments are not the preserve of the young alone. Love is a complex business and changeable, and how better to illustrate that than the manner in which the twists and turns of Cavalli's opera and musical treatment covers it.
It's a much richer and more dynamic palette that is brought out here than the laments and single-emotion at a time expression of subsequent opera seria period. Arias and ariosos flit between one mood or emotion to another - as someone in love is wont to do - and the singers here are eminently capable of displaying the necessary range, where youth and purity of voice and sentiment is absolutely essential. It's through love that we recognise our true selves, the opera tells us, through the destiny and fate that bonds us to each other as family, and it's love in all its guises that gives life its depth, richness and quality. Cavalli recognises this and puts it all into his dynamically expressive music.
The stage production at Aix isn't quite as rich and expressive, but it rightly defers to the music and the singing. The set design has a makeshift quality, dimly lit, with a wire mesh platform employed and canopy of light-bulbs. The costumes too are in that mix-and-don't-match style that nevertheless reflects characters who have many contradictory facets and might not don't really know who they are yet. Francesca Aspromonte sings Erismane in a way accentuates her essential beauty, firmness and brightness. Susanna Hurrell captures a sense of lightness and innocence in Aldimira that makes her character's inconstancy charming rather than flirtatious and damaging. Carlo Vistoli's Idraspe/Erineo is beautifully sung, reflecting his dual nature and identity and his desire to control his nature, but all of the roles are sung with bright youthful pureness and great skill, weaving around the Cappella Mediterranea's beautiful interpretation of Cavalli's melodies, to striking effect.
Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox