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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Elena, Dramma per musica in a Prologue and Three Acts (Venice, 1659)
Elena,Venere - Emöke Baráth (soprano)
Menelao - Valer Barna-Sabadus (countertenor)
Teseo - Fernando Guimarães (tenor)
Ippolita, Pallade - Solenn’ Lavanant Linke (mezzo)
Peritoo - Rodrigo Ferreira (countertenor)
Iro - Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (tenor)
Menesteo, La Pace - Anna Reinhold
Tindaro, Nettuno - Scott Conner
Erginda, Giunone, Castore - Mariana Flores
Eurite, La Verità - Majdouline Zerari
Diomede, Creonte - Brendan Tuohy (tenor)
Euripilo, La Discordia, Polluce - Christopher Lowrey
Antiloco - Job Tomé
Cappella Mediterranea [Anne Millischer and Stéphanie de Failly (violins and violas), Gustavo Gargiulo and Rodrigo Calveyra (cornets and recorders), Rodney Prada (viola da gamba and lirone), Margaux Blanchard (viola da gamba), Éric Mathot (double bass), Monica Pustilnik (theorbo, archlute and guitar), Quito Gato (theorbo, guitar and percussions), Ariel Rychter (harpsichord with gut strings and harpsichord)]/Leonardo García Alarcón (harpsichord and organ)
Director: Jean-Yves Ruf
rec. live Aix-en-Provence Festival, July 2013.
Recorded in conjunction with and also available for streaming from Medici TV.
RICERCAR RIC346 [2 DVDs: 2:57:20 plus book]

Excerpts available on Daily Motion.

This production, recorded live at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 2013 – subsequently revived at Versailles, Opéra de Lille and elsewhere – was the first time that Elena had seen the light of day for more than three centuries, apart from a 2006 revival at Cornell University and three brief orchestral excerpts, also performed by Cappella Mediterreana on Sogno Barocco (Naïve V5286, a mainly vocal album with Anne Sophie von Otter, Sandrine Piau and Susanna Sundberg: ‘a must for baroque enthusiasts’ – see review by Göran Forsling.)

Having missed Sogno Barocco when it appeared in 2012, I downloaded it from, intending to review it in a forthcoming Download News, only to find that tracks 2-4 were not what they purport to be but music by Mozart and Schubert.  Having streamed from it from Qobuz I can now happily endorse Göran Forsling’s high opinion.

Those titbits apart and a few others in a more recent 2-CD set of Cavalli, Heroines of the Venetian Baroque (Ricercar RIC359 – Download News 2015/9) we have been missing some very fine music.  Even when Cavalli is in comic mood in some of his other operas the music often belies the foolery; here music and overall tone are more in accord.  I certainly can’t agree with the Opera Today reviewer who thought this an opera ‘perhaps best forgotten’.

This being Cavalli, Elena is not exactly free from foolery, though neither the composer nor the director overdoes it.  There’s innate humour in the number of suitors queuing up for Helen herself but if anything Monteverdi satirises the suitors in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse more, and that’s a serious opera, with the suitors meeting a dire fate.   Even the jester Iro is less slapstick than his parasitic namesake in Ulisse, often speaking sense in his ‘madness’, as when he lectures Eurite on the prime renaissance theme of the Golden Age.  Emiliano Gonzalez Toro revels in the role without overdoing it.

A baroque prologue is usually a serious affair, but here the goddesses are deceived by Discord, disguised as Peace, sowing dissent by making them squabble over the golden apple – there’s no Paris in this version to award the prize.  Perhaps the production, with the goddesses queening it with absurd hair styles, comes a bit close to overstepping the mark, but I’m not complaining and I usually hate hammy opera productions: though I enjoyed the Opus Arte DVDs of Ercole Amante, I did so with reservations about some unnecessary stage business – review

In any case, there’s a point to the action in the prologue of Elena: as a result of the discord sown between the goddesses, though Menelaus is destined to win Helen, she is doomed to be abducted first by Theseus and later by Paris.  By the time that Truth and the real Peace arrive, the future is fixed.

King Tyndarus, who falls in love with the ‘Amazon’ Menelaus in disguise and loses ‘her’ to Pirithous, could easily have become a figure of fun, but instead we tend to sympathise with his predicament.  If anything it’s the lovers who are gently made fun of, with quotations from Cavalli’s mentor Monteverdi’s madrigals such as Ardo, avvampo, on their lips.

The singing is uniformly good, especially in the main roles, with those of Emöke Baráth as Helen and Valer Barna-Sabadus as Menelaus blending especially well in their duets.  The instrumental support is first-rate.  We see quite a lot of Leonardo García Alarcón in the pit directing his small and accomplished team, but never so as to distract from the action.  In the final analysis he and they are as much real stars of the show as the singers, as they also are on the Naïve CD and the Ricercar 2-CD set mentioned above.  The camera work in general is as accomplished as it is in showing those moments in the pit.

Elena would lend itself to a more lavish production than we could expect from the Aix Festival, but the simple set is well employed, with an occasional hint of what something more sumptuous might look like, as when a large sail is unfurled to simulate a sea voyage.  No modern opera house could afford to have a ship on stage, such as appeared in the Florentine Marriage Intermedii of 1589, themselves the precursors of the operatic form.  In the second half clever use is made of hanging clusters of threads.  If the singing, the instrumental support and Alarcón’s musical direction are my prime objects of praise, Jean-Yves Ruf deserves as much.  Not only does nothing really annoy me, as stage directors nowadays seem bent on doing; I thought that he made excellent use of his limited resources.

I enjoyed this as much as any baroque opera that I’ve seen or heard recently, sustaining interest for almost three hours.  I must, however, award some black marks for presentation: despite the luxury appearance in the form of a hardback book with DVDs in pockets fore and aft, no indication is given of availability of sound formats, apparently 2-channel stereo only – that was the option I could find in the menu – or of region limitations, if any.  The booklet contains a synopsis, but in such an elaborate presentation it should have been possible to include the libretto.  We don’t even have the opportunity of seeing the original Italian from subtitles – these are French and English only.  Thankfully Kristin Kane’s 2006 Cornell doctoral dissertation and edition, resuscitating the opera from its long slumber, is posted online here .

I played the DVDs first on television with a sound-base, then sampled the sound via my audio system.  Though DVD only, apparently with no blu-ray equivalent, the picture is very sharp and the sound is good though, paradoxically, the sound-base made it sound fuller than my audio system and floor-standing speakers.

I played the discs in 2-channel stereo and I assume, for lack of information, that the DVDs are Region 0, universally playable.  Nor are the voice ranges of the singers listed: I’ve supplied the main ones.  Getting the DVDs in and out – especially in – without touching the playing surface is somewhat hazardous.  That said, this is a luxury offering, with plenty of colour illustrations of costume designs, trilingual notes on the opera and the raison d’être of this production and a useful synopsis.

All in all this ‘lost’ opera has been triumphantly restored to life after more than three centuries.  I enjoyed it even more than my earlier encounters with other Cavalli operas on DVD: Ercole Amante (above) and La Didonereview.

Brian Wilson


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