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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
L’Ormindo (Venice, 1676)
L’Armonia – Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Ormindo – Martín Oro (counter-tenor)
Amida – Howard Crook (tenor)
Nerillo – Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
Sicle – Magali Léger (soprano)
Erice – Jean-François Lombard (tenor)
Erisbe – Stéphanie Révidat (soprano)
Mirinda – Karine Deshayes (mezzo)
Hariadeno – Jacques Bona (baritone)
Osmano – Benoît Arnould (baritone)
Les Paladins/Jérôme Correas
rec. Temple St Marcel, Paris, June 2006
PAN CLASSICS PC10330 [55:32 + 75:44]

The theatre of San Cassiano in Venice was the world’s first public opera house, and it was for this theatre that Cavalli wrote L’Ormindo. He makes implicit reference to the greatness of his host city in the Prologue, sung by Harmony. The booklet notes make the argument that the aria Che città is a reference not to the story’s location of Anfa but to Venice itself. If you’re curious then the booklet, which also contains the full text and translation, will tell you more. Either way, you’ll be pleased to hear that the musical performance is very good indeed.

The greatest virtue is, in fact, the orchestral tone, which is really delightful. The textures of the opening are beautifully spare, the strings captured with sparseness and delicacy. Jérôme Correas has a seemingly innate understanding of the period. He directs the music with an impeccable sense of style and forward movement, flowing without ever sounding forced or hard-driven. His ensemble follow him every step of the way, producing sounds of such sweetness and delicacy that you take the instrumental flair for granted before you know it.

The singers are great, too. Sandrine Piau is sensational in the Prologue, fully inside the style with its florid coloratura and occasionally breathy mannerisms, topped by tone of precise, sometimes cold beauty that I found very compelling. As Ormindo himself, Martín Oro has a slightly unsteady first aria, but he warms up quickly and his address to Erisbe's beauty sounds very good. His duets with Erisbe in the final act are even better, a beguiling example of Cavalli at his very best, and a sound of cool beauty to relish. Howard Crook as Amida is delicate and sensitive, and his voice weaves in and out of Oro's very beguilingly in their duets.

I admit I am no admirer of Dominique Visse, and I found his sound rather irritating at times, without being able to decide whether this was the fault of the role or the singer. His mannerisms and affectations were infuriating to me, but others may enjoy him. As Sicle, Magali Léger puts her rich voice to good use and sounds very distinctive. Her role in the opera is rather convoluted, but her eventual reconciliation with Aminda is well done and musically satisfying.

Rather oddly, the part of the nurse, Erice, is taken by a man, the rather peculiar-sounding tenor of Jean-François Lombard. The colour of his voice is, however, pretty unique, almost a halfway house between male and female not dissimilar to a counter-tenor singing at the very bottom of his range. This has the effect of evoking the voice of an older female without being one. I found it a little disconcerting, and perhaps a little wilful, but there's also an argument that it's a stroke of genius, so you should approach it with an open mind. Perhaps it's done to add an extra air of strangeness to the scene in the cave where she/he plays a witch, and it does so rather effectively, if sounding a little bizarre.

The love interest, Erisbe, is sung with great beauty by Stéphanie Révidat, as is her companion Mirinda by Karine Deshayes. As a piece of musical beauty, if rather inert drama, their first duet takes some beating, and Mirinda's first aria makes a thankfully sprightly end to the first act. Erisbe, on the other hand, does plenty of lamenting in this opera, and it is to Révidat's credit that she carries this off with lots of beautiful tone while avoiding tiresomeness. The elderly Hariadeno is well sung and characterised by Jacques Bona, a fruity baritone that convinces of the King's age without ever making him sound like a spent invalid. Benoît Arnould doesn't have an awful lot to do as Osmano but he does it rather well.

Opera of this period has a structure and set of conventions that won’t appeal to everyone, and it’s not the most thrilling ride you'll get from an opera, but it's early opera at its beautiful best, and this set does it proud.

Simon Thompson