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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Il Giasone (‘Jason’ -1649) opera in three acts and a prologue to a libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini [182:29]
Cast: Valer Sabadus, countertenor (Giasone)
Kristina Hammarström, mezzo-soprano (Medea)
Kristina Mkhitaryan, soprano (Isifile)
Willard White, baritone (Oreste & Giove)
Güneş Gürle, bass-baritone (Besso)
Raúl Giménez, tenor (Egeo)
Alexander Milev, bass (Ercole)
Dominique Visse, counter-tenor (Delfa & Eolo)
Migran Agadzhanyan, tenor (Demo & Volano)
Mariana Flores, soprano (Alinda)
Mary Feminear , soprano (Amore)
Cappella Mediterranea/Leonardo Garcia Alarcón (conductor)
Serena Sinigaglia, stage direction
Isabelle Soulard, film direction
Libretto not included; English subtitles
rec. L’ Opéra des Nations du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Switzerland, 2017
DVD9 NTSC 16.9; 5.1 surround sound; stereo
ALPHA DVD 718 [182:29]

I wonder how many collectors made their first acquaintance with the operas of Francesco Cavalli via Raymond Leppard’s legendary Argo set of La Calisto with Janet Baker and James Bowman originally issued in the early 1970s (it is happily still available)? And how many of us would ever have envisaged a time when 14 of Cavalli’s 27 surviving operas would be freely available on either CD, DVD or Blu-Ray, many in two or more versions, as well as a large chunk of his magnificent sacred music? It is less surprising, in statistical terms at least, that his most frequently recorded opera is his version of the Jason and the Argonauts myth, Il Giasone.

My last encounter with the irrepressible Leonardo Garcia Alarcón and his flexible ensemble Cappella Mediterranea involved another release on Alpha, the CD De Vez En Cuando La Vida (review), which was essentially a side project devoted to the art of the popular Catalan singer/songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat (b 1943). This DVD finds them back upon more familiar terra firma , with Alarcón leading his minstrels and a top notch cast in a colourful, mildly shocking, multi-layered production of Cavalli’s 1649 hit, supposedly (and to me, at least, most surprisingly) the most performed opera of the entire 17th century.

Serena Sinigaglia’s lively production is simultaneously fanciful, weird and engaging – ultimately it’s postmodernism with knobs on; some of the allusions work, others fall flat. The stereotypes of 17th century Venetian opera are all present and correct. The eponymous hero is portrayed here as a day-dreaming fop with chiselled features, less concerned with the acquisition of the Golden Fleece and more preoccupied with saucy nocturnal liaisons conducted in darkness with an unidentified beauty (Medea of course); naturally such a sensualist could only be sung by a countertenor. The alpha-male characters, such as Hercules, are sung by basses. Sir Willard White puts in a double shift as Orestes and Jupiter. The Turkish bass-baritone Güneş Gürle sees Jason’s fawning lieutenant Besso in more ambiguous terms. The principal female characters are both essentially strong women; Medea seldom hints at vulnerability, while Isifile, at the points where she is defined by her less than auspicious circumstances, does so more frequently. The bawdy pantomime dame Delfa is another counter-tenor; here it’s a lewdly suggestive Dominique Visse hamming it up ‘manfully’. Another comic turn is the stuttering clown Demo. The Argonauts mooch about in black biker chic, don tattoos and shades and wile away the hours waiting for Jason to get off his backside by leering over a 1970s porn mag – we get the point but it’s hammered home relentlessly. Isifile is portrayed as a sobbing party girl constantly surrounded by a coterie of flappers. There is a contrived happy-ending. Some of the stylistic juxtapositions are momentarily entertaining, occasionally they mis-fire and irritate, unnecessarily distracting from Cavalli’s wonderful music. But to Ms Sinigaglia’s great credit, the pace is relentless and the stage action certainly draws one’s full attention throughout, ensuring that one’s interest never wilts.

In the Prologue the listener picks up immediately on one of the staples of Alarcón’s projection of the music, namely the use (over-use?) of colourful percussion throughout Amore’s (Cupid) rather gawky dance, before Sole’s (The Sun/Apollo) aria celebrating the dawning of this glorious day in which Jason will finally set off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and marry his unrecognised paramour Medea, who happens to be Sole’s descendant. This is to Amore’s chagrin, for he has already pulled strings for Jason’s betrothal to Isifile. The brilliant Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan demonstrates a sharper edge to her soprano in this opening cameo as Sole than the warmer, more rounded sound that emerges in her main role as Isifile. Mary Feminar’s fruity soprano is well-suited to Cupid’s faux-anger, though her deliberately ill-fitting costume is ugly on the eye and is presumably an unsubtle caricature of a Cupid as painted by Raphael, or similar.

In the glorious aria "Delizie, contenti" , the first impression of Valer Sabadus’s counter-tenor is of a voice that’s too frail and weak to project Jason through three long acts, but this is misleading ; this fine Romanian singer’s voice actually seems to strengthen during this aria in particular and as the opera as a whole proceeds. He’s also a fine comic actor with real presence, subtle timing and a terrific repertoire of facial expressions. The contrast between his androgynous high voice and Alexander Milev’s (a testosterone –fuelled Ercole) loamy bass in their shared scenes is a treat. Mezzo Kristina Hammarström makes a strong-voiced, resolute Medea. She delivers a sturdy aria "Se dardo pungente" before facing off with her husband Egeo, in a characterisation which brought to my mind a neurotic ‘Man from Del Monte’. The tenor Raúl Giménez is suitably over the top in his lament “Misero, cosi va”

Willard White contributes his legendary stagecraft and a voice that shows remarkably little wear and tear to his two roles –as Medea’s spy Oreste he is generous to a fault in his scene with the stammering scene-stealing comic character Demo, entertainingly played and sung by the Belorussian tenor Migran Agadzhanyan. The other main comic character is Medea’s ancient nurse Delfa. Dominique Visse makes a brilliant pantomime dame, outrageously bawdy and suggestive in the aria “Voli il tempo”. To my ears there is barely a weak link among any of these principal characters – their singing and acting is first-rate throughout.

As for the instrumental contributions, Cappella Mediterranea deploy roughly 25 musicians and produce the sun-kissed, honeyed sounds for which they are renowned, and which are especially apposite in this kind of repertoire. The continuo incorporates a cornucopia of tangy, strummed instruments; dulcian, harp, archlute, and guitar supplement the harpsichord and reinforce the sultry atmosphere of the setting. Alarcón rarely hangs about in the quicker music which bounces along with swagger and suppleness. Purists may find the regular use of percussion such as tambourine and castanets during the ritornelli somewhat intrusive; I certainly didn’t. So much of this music is borne of the dance and Alarcon’s colours simply emphasise this. Moreover, Alarcón is expert in drawing expressive and tender playing from his band during the laments and slower arias.

Alpha’s production is first rate; the scenes seem rather darkly-hued, but the filming is exemplary. Not so the documentation; there is a cast list and a synopsis which is skeletal at best, although there’s a nice essay on the mysteries and delights of 17th century Venetian opera by Jean-François Lattarico. The subtitles suffice, though. Another issue, however is that the ‘chapters’ on the DVD correspond merely to the three long acts; I could find no individual cue points to access individual scenes which means a degree of expertise on the old FFD>> button is required. Notwithstanding these caveats this colourful, energetic production of La Giasone flies by. It’s great fun and Cavalli’s music provides endless delight. We’ve come a long way since that pioneering Leppard recording from half a lifetime ago.

Richard Hanlon

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