Monday, 17 April 2017

Cavalli - Il Giasone (Geneva, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - Il Giasone

Grand Théâtre de Genève, Geneva - 2017

Leonardo García Alarcón, Serena Sinigaglia, Valer Sabadus, Kristina Hammarström, Kristina Mkhitaryan, Alexander Milev, Günes Gürle, Raúl Giménez, Willard White, Migran Agadzhanyan, Dominique Visse, Mariana Flores, Mary Feminear

ARTE Concert - February 2017

The first opera composers, back in Venice in the 17th century, believed that the Greek tragedies were meant to be performed to musical accompaniment, and the invention of opera was a way of reinstating music as a key component of dramatic expression. The notion about Greek drama proved to be a mistaken one, but from it developed a whole new way of expressing classic tales and drawing out underlying subtexts, ideas and themes. Realising its potential, the first great opera composer Monteverdi soon extended the scope of opera beyond the gods and myths of the classics and into the more commonplace earthly sentiments of human love, loss and lust. His student Francesco Cavalli took these ideas even further.

It's only now as more of the composer's works are being examined and performed that we are beginning to realise the extent to which Cavalli developed the art of lyric drama. Central to the rediscovery of many rare Cavalli works is the Argentinean baroque specialist conductor Leonardo García Alarcón. The success of his Elena at Aix-en-Provence in 2013 is being followed with a premiere this year of Erismena, and he unearthed the wonderful Eliogabalo for the Paris Opera in 2016. Alarcón and Geneva's contribution to the development of the Cavalli catalogue is another rarity, Il Giasone, composed in 1649. It's also derived from those classical Greek epics, but it's given what we can now see as a characteristic humanly rich and down-to-earth treatment from Cavalli.

Cavalli's Il Giasone gives us a different perspective on the story of Jason that the less than flattering one that we would be more accustomed to hearing from the perspective of Euripides' Medea. So has Jason just had bad ancient Greek PR? Well, Cavalli's Il Giasone gives a more rounded account of the leader of the Argonauts and judging by the tender duets that he shares with Medea, there seems to be genuine love, affection and respect there for the Queen of Colchis. On the other hand, Jason's promiscuity is also made quite apparent in Cavalli's opera, a habit that will get him into trouble further down the line by the time he gets to Corinth. Here, having had what Wikipedia amusingly describes as having "extensive relations" with the women of Lemnos, Jason has already fathered twins to Hypsipyle (Isifile in the opera) and Medea's nurse Delfa claims that he has had another set of twins with her. He certainly puts it about a bit.

What is Jason's response to all these accusations? Well, Serena Sinigaglia's direction for Il Giasone seems to be perfectly in the spirit of Cavalli's usual treatment of such situations; deny everything. Or he at least has the wit to claim, while wearing a cheesy grin at the thought of all these women claiming paternity, that it could have been him, but who's to know and how he is supposed to keep count of his conquests and the resulting progeny? That really sets the tone for a work that is far fresher and more entertaining than a work almost 400 years old has any right to be. The delightful Geneva production and Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting of the Cappella Mediterranea contributes to this impression with a staging that is simple, captivating and musically invigorating.

The set and costume designs by Ezio Toffolutti are just perfect for every purpose, and Cavalli has plenty of purpose to put them towards. There are no extravagant gestures or clever concepts applied, just an effort placed into making the stage look stylish attractive and dramatically effective. The main prop is a dark circle of standing stones with surrounding flat-panel bushes that serve as hiding places and platforms for romantic assignations, as well as providing a suitable location for Medea to work invocations and cast spells. The costumes, mainly on the part of Isifile and her Lemnos entourage, are 1920s' period elegance, while there is also good use made out of body suits for the muscular Ercole, the hunchbacked Demo and the nursing attributes of Delfa. They also come hilariously complete with miniature appendages for the dancing cherub Amore.

The plot has something of a 'Carry on Jason' kind of comic farce to it with Demo (Migran Agadzhanyan) providing stuttering double-entendres and the nurse Delfa (who else can do this role better than Dominique Visse) leaping on any sailor who is game enough to take her on, but that's only part of Cavalli's rich entertainment. The situations can also convey something of the underlying menace of Medea's formidable reputation, but at the same time show an unexpected tenderness and even sensitivity for Jason, seeking protection for him in his quest for the Golden Fleece. It might seem like there are far too many little side-plots and situations, but even with a large cast of mythological heroes, villains, gods, dwarfs, queens and kings in complex arrangements, they all display recognisably human characteristics and contribute to the central subject of the relations between men and women. Cavalli scores the music for it all wonderfully, with invigorating dance rhythms, touching laments and reflective love duets.

Medea is a gift of a character in whatever dramatic or operatic incarnation she appears and Kristina Hammarström takes the role well here in the Geneva Il Giasone alongside countertenor Valer Sabadus as Jason. Cavalli rarely goes in for showy arias, preferring instead to give the performers strong characters that they can really get their teeth into, and that's certainly the case here. Even so, there are a number of duets between Jason and Medea that are just beautifully written and performed here. Kristina Mkhitaryan also has a substantial role as Hypsipyle/Isifile which she sings wonderfully, bringing a lovely clear brightness to the character. Musically, it's a real treat with Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting the Cappella Mediterranea, the period instruments bringing out a lovely percussive rhythmic edge to the score with a deep low continuo accompaniment.

Links: ARTE ConcertGrand Théâtre de Genève