Francesco Cavalli - Elena
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2013
Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean-Yves Ruf, Emőke Baráth, Valer Barna-Sabadus, Fernando Guimarães, Solenn' Lavanant Linke, Rodrigo Ferreira, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Anna Reinhold, Scott Conner, Mariana Flores, Majdouline Zerari, Brendan Tuohy, Christopher Lowrey, Job Tomé
Medici Live Internet Streaming - 11 July 2013
Cavalli operas present considerable difficulties at the best of times, but Elena, one of composer's rarest works, is perhaps one of the most challenging. Quite what tone to set for the work is complicated by the nature of the writing itself, its libretto finished by Nicolò Minato after the death of Cavalli's regular collaborator Giovanni Faustini in 1651. First performed in 1659, the work moreover hasn't been produced in full for over 350 years, and attitudes towards how opera is performed have changed a lot in that time. Is Elena meant to be played as a relatively straight account of the abduction of Helen of Troy or is it more of what the Aix programme describes as a "vaudeville mythologique" or indeed in reference to Offenbach, a "Baroque Belle Hélène"?
The 2013 Aix-en-Provence production, conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón and directed by Jean-Yves Ruf seems to be a little uncertain quite how to play Elena in this regard. When in doubt however, it seems that the best model for playing Cavalli is to look back at his master and mentor, Claudio Monteverdi and in particular at his masterpiece L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Following its innovative approach to mixing of the vulgar and the sublime, the human and the heavenly, Elena seems to assert its own tone quite successfully.
The opera starts out light and humorous, with folk-like dance rhythms marked out on harpsichord, but it's given tremendous colour through Cavalli's writing for woodwind and trumpet, with the lute-like Theorbo used as well for more plaintive laments. The dominant tone however is established when the central relationship of Elena and Menelaus emerges from the complications that ensue when the colourful cast comes into contact with the face that launched a thousand ships, and probably just as many operas. Even the manner in which the situation arises here is a combination of the mythic and the comic, the Prologue being a familiar early Baroque one where the Gods are in dispute. It's an undignified affair to say the least, with Discordia (in disguise as Concordia), setting Juno, Venus and Pallas against one another in a dispute over who is most worthy of the Golden Apple. Discord sown (so to speak), it's determined that the fate of Helen to be joined with Menelaus is not going to be smooth sailing.
That meddling in the affairs of mortals leads, as it does in most Baroque operas, to great complications in the main part of Elena. It's Theseus who abducts Helen, having abandoned his intended Hippolyta (which will have repercussions later), but in doing so he also takes Elisa, an Amazonian slave who has been engaged by King Tyndareus of Sparta as a wrestling assistant for Helen. Elisa however is none other than Meneleas dressed in female clothing, but so good is his disguise that not only has Theseus's colleague Pirithous fallen in love with her, but so too has King Tyndareus. As much then to bring back Elisa as his abducted daughter, the King sends his jester Irus out to find them.
That's just a simplified version of what happens in Act I, but even without bringing in the other players - in disguise and cross-dressing - it's not too difficult to see how such a plot can seem a little bit ridiculous as it descends into bitterness, rivalry and misunderstandings. On the other hand, it also provides plenty of opportunity for a variety of situations and tones, all fuelled by overwhelming mad desires. If what ensues is almost farcical, the sentiments expressed are nonetheless heartfelt. Helen's maid, Astianassa for example, only wishes that someone cared enough to abduct her and sings a beautiful aria of sadness for her position. The same is the case for the spurned Hippolyta, for the Prince Menestheus, who falls in love with Helen on first sight, and for King Tyndareus. Their passions might seem silly to others, but they are real to them.
In its example of showing important historical figures like Nero, Seneca and Poppea to be humans with the same sentiments as everyone else, Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea may indeed be the model to follow in terms of setting the variations of tone to be found in Elena. In many other respects however, Cavalli's writing goes beyond Monteverdi in the richness of the instrumentation, in the supplementation of the basso continuo, but particularly in the writing for voices. In addition to the expected solo laments, much of the plot and interaction between the characters is developed though beautiful duets, and it's used as well to express their compatibility and common accord. Often both voices sing the same words, one a beat behind the other, but the harmony of the voices and the expressions of lyrical beauty are quite extraordinary.
Despite the intervention of many characters and the expression of their desires towards them, it's the duets then between Menelaus and Helen that affirm the rightness of their union. Theseus and Hippolyta also put their differences aside (Theseus apologises to Castor and Pollux, "Sorry for abducting Helen", "That's ok, forgive and forget" they reply!), which also allows Concordia to reign again (temporarily) and the opera to end with a short but beautiful quartet of voices in union. The singing is excellent particularly from these main players - Emőke Baráth as Helen, Fernando Guimarães as Theseus, and Solenn' Lavanant Linke as Hippolyta, but the stand-out performance is undoubtedly that of countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus as Menelaus.
The stage direction by Jean-Yves Ruf and the set designs by Laure Pichat keep things relatively simple. The stage is small and resembles an arena or a bullring, with a semi-circle of wood fencing behind the players. The period is not classical but closer to 17th century, the production even employing old-style special effects for wind and storms, with billowing sails for those sea journeys. It doesn't always sustain visual interest in what is a long 3-hour opera with a great deal of characters and repetitive situations, but the simplicity and intimacy of the setting is undoubtedly the best way to play a work of this type, and it frames the strengths of Cavalli's writing and supports the fine singing.
Elena at the Aix-en-Provence Festival is available for viewing on-line (with French subtitles) from the Medici and ARTE Live Web sites.