Tuesday 15 October 2013

Crazier than Jason, Cavalli Elena

Franscesco Cavalli's Jason (Giasone 1649) is making the circuit with the English Touring Opera this season. Cavalli is hardly unknown : The Royal Opera House did his La Calisto (1651) as recently as  2008 and William Christie did La Didone (1641) at the Champs Elysées in 2012. Cavalli used the conventions of Classical Antiquity but reinvented them with audacious exuberance, in keeping with the sophistication of his era. Baroque tastes were irrepressible, not at all "Victorian values". erhaps now we're ready for Cavalli again.

Cavalli's Elena (Il rapimento d'Helena, the Abduction of Helena 1659) was performed this July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Exceptionally wonderful performance : watch it while it's still available on arte.tv. There are  13 principal parts, many en travesti, some appearing in dual roles, but don't get bogged down in the convoluted plot. Enjoy the sheer earthy energy of the music.Belly laughs are built into this score, inventive flourishes underpinned by gutsy orchestration. Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterannea prove that period instruments can pack a powerful punch.

A spectacular prologue sets the mood. Three graces in costumes referring to the baroque's fascination with the exotic surround Iro, the jester. Outstanding performance by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whose range is so high he can sing countertenor with ease, dropping his voice to the gutsiest depths to emphasize the more salacious aspects of the part. But watch his acting - part ingenue, part knowing roué. He's  unique. I'll be following his career. When Neptune (Scott Conner) appears, Iro and the graces become "waves", in his wake : beautifully languid lines to sing and play. Neptune reminds us that, disguised as a swan, the God raped Elena's mother. The maiden who will eventually become Helen of troy has lust and deception in her genes. It's no surprise then that Menelao Valer Barna-Sabadus dresses as a girl, he's so convincing that men want to seduce him. He's a wonderful singer. When he and  Emöke Barath (Elena) duet, the interplay between their voices is utterly exquisite  There's frisson of innuendo, but the vocal qualities are so pure that you focus on the beauty of the music.

All round excellence in the singing, shoiwing what a good ear Cavalli had for blending different types of voices in similar fachs. Fernando Guimaeres's Teseo was rich and dark, and Solenn Lavanant Linke's Ippolye/.Pallade was womanly, but demented. This meeting between Theseus and Hippolyte is deliciously mad, though the voices balance perfectly.  There are several mezzo trouser roles, some also in duet, which display the range to great effect. Big guys have fun too. Brendan Touhy  sings Diomede and Creonte, he gets to cross dress and prance semi naked but its the poise of his singing you remember - a real character tenor a rarer type than you'd expect, who can act with a voice steady throughout the range. Elena and Menelao in dresses, Teseo and Ippolyte in pants, declare their love, watched by Castor and Pollux, sing a beautiful quartet, garlanded by sweet toned woodwinds. But do they live happily ever after ? Elena (Helen) ends up in Troy, but that's another story.

This Cavalli Elena is a delight, especially for those who enjoy what high, clear voices can express. These singers are so confident that they can play around with technique when it enhances humour. Utterly brilliant.  Don't miss the battle scene (around the 2 hour mark), which is hilarious ! As the Financial Times critic said, Cavalli's Elena was the "Some Like in Hot" of its time.

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