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Fanfare Magazine: 12:5 (05-06/1989)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: David Johnson


Giasone was “the most frequently performed, the most highly acclaimed, and the most reviled opera of the Italian 17th century“ (I quote from the elegant program notes to this recording, by Lorenzo Bianconi, elegantly translated by Derek Yeld). In the forty years after its 1649 Venice premiere it had been revived at least twenty times, all over Italy. Twelve manuscript scores and numerous printed librettos of the opera have survived. In 1671 Alessandro Stradella composed for it a new prolog and three new arias, trimmed its great length and gave it a new lease on life which took it from Italy to major opera centers elsewhere in Europe. But by the turn of the century Giasone had fallen into disuse, along with Cavalli's other operas. A new type of opera, born in Naples and dominated by secco recitative and da capo aria, rendered the noble experiment of the Florentine Camerata obsolete. But there was another reason besides musical fashion to account for the quick fading of the operas of Cavalli and his contemporaries: the increasingly indiscriminate mixing of comic and serious elements, and the increasing tone of ribaldry and cynicism that dominated their librettos. Giasone especially came to be “reviled“ for this perceived shortcoming. In 1698, Giovanni Maria Crescimbeni, in his History of Vernacular Poetry, takes to task Giasone's librettist, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, for placing side by side “with a monstrousness never heard before, kings, heroes and other illustrious characters, with buffoons, servants and folk of the lowest extraction. This hotch-potch of characters brought about a total destruction of the rules of poetry, which were to fall into disuse to such a degree that no regard was paid any longer even to diction. ' '

In following the plot of Giasone one can see what Crescimbeni was complainign about, but in our permissive age the rough and tumble, the sexual inuendos, the refusal to take the plot and its high-flown characters from Greek mythology too seriously—all this, in the cynical 1980s, we are finding more and more diverting as Cavalli's operas, one after the other, come to light again. Cavalli's major collaborators were Giovanni Faustini, G. F. Busenello and Nicolo Minato, all of them witty and talented poets. But Cicognini, it seems to me, surpasses them in sheer audacity and knockabout humor; he was a kind of seventeenth-century Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately he wrote few librettos in his relatively brief lifetime (1606-1651) and he and Cavalli collaborated only once, on Giasone. But Cavalli picked up and set another Cicognini libretto: Il Celio (Florence 1646, music by Baglioni and Sapiti) became Cavalli's Veremonda l'amazzone di Aragona. And Cicognini supplied Cesti with the libretto of L'Orontea, the second most popular opera of the Seicento. Obviously he was doing something right. Born in Florence, the son of a distinguished playwright, poet, and actor, he also distinguished himself in prose tragedies and comedies, and made sufficient impress on Italian literature to justify several full-length studies of his art. He himself passed off his talent with the half-flippant remark, “I write out of mere caprice, and this caprice of mine has no other aim than to delight.“ Delight he does: one can simply read the libretto to Giasone, without listening to Cavalli's music, and find oneself chuckling or laughing aloud. With Cavalli's brilliantly calculated settings, the effects are that much funnier. Of course this is not per se a comedy, but an all-purpose “Drama musicale,“ with many scenes in the high, heroic style—but even these are often somehow touched with cheek.

Cicognini turns the Jason legend on its head. On his way to capture the Golden Fleece, Jason stops off at Lemnos to dally with Queen Hipsipyle. He leaves her pregnant with what ultimately prove to be twins as he pursues his voyage with the other Argonauts, promising her that he will return to resume the “marriage.“ Arrived at Caichis, Jason again allows his heart (or a lower portion of his anatomy) to rule his head and takes up with a mysterious beauty who visits him only at night in his tent, and never allows him to see her. Eventually it transpires that she is none other than the imperious Medea, and by her he also has a pair of twins (there is no plot reason for the double sets, merely Cicognini's fancy). Meanwhile the Argonauts, led by Hercules, have grown thoroughly disgusted with Jason's time-wasting philandering, and Hypsipyle has sent her wise- cracking servant, Orestes (what a name for a servant!) to find out why he hasn't returned to her and the babies. Orestes, in several very funny encounters with the hunchbacked stammerer Demo, soon learns the lay of the land. Demo is in the employ of Prince Aegeus, Medea's other lover, whom she had intended to marry until her lecherous nurse, Delfa, pointed out that the twins would be bastards unless she ditched Aegeus and married Jason. However, Hypsipyle turns up in Colchis, twins and all, seeking Jason and singing a grand lamento that lasts a good quarter of an hour (or so it seems). Medea imperiously tells Jason to slay her rival, but Jason passes the buck to one of the Argonauts, Besso, who is to fling her into the sea when she utters the pass-phrase, “Has Jason's orders been executed?“ But Medea, impatient for the deed to be done and unaware of the password strategy, gets to Besso first with those very words. (Hypsipyle had been delayed by the necessity of nursing the twins.) Besso thereupon flings the great enchantress off a cliff into the ocean. But she is rescued by her spurned lover, Aegeus, and in gratitude decides to marry him after all. Hypsipyle has heard of the plot on her own life and, brokenhearted (another very long lament), goes to Jason and asks him to kill her himself, but to spare her breasts so that they may continue supplying the children with sustenance. Thoroughly ashamed of his shabby treatment of her, Jason redeclares his love. The opera ends with general rejoicing and a good deal of stuttering on the part of Demo. This, mind you, merely covers the bare bones plot; there is all kinds of secondary action taking place as well.

The opera is almost as long as Tristan and Isolde—nearly four hours, and even then René Jacobs made some cuts; but, he says in his fascinating notes on the score, he has retained ninety percent of the music. As with all Seicento operas, a great deal of modern editing and filling-out was necessary in order to bring the score back to life. Jacobs did all this himself, and judging by this recording, did it superbly. He added five-part string accompaniments to some of the arias when the score calls only for continuo; he adds an occasional obbligato part (flute, violin, cello); he adds ritornelli where Cavalli fails to put them where “expected“ (these are taken from other Cavalli works, or from works by his contemporaries); he supplies “ballo“ music at ends of acts, where dances are needed, taking dances by Schmelzer and others for this purpose; he makes decisions about when to use wind instruments along with the string ensemble, and is especially good at adding bright passages for cornet and trumpet; and he makes a fairly free-wheeling use of such continuo instruments as harpsichords (two of them), organ, lute, guitar, harp, and lirone. More significant and much more controversial: he composes an aria for Medea in act III, justifying this lèse-majesté on the grounds that the words to the aria exist in one of the printed librettos but the music is lacking in all the manuscripts. Jacobs feels that a big vengeance aria is indispensable at this point, and I rather agree with him—especially since he comes up with a show-stopper in its own right, deriving the music partly from an earlier Medea aria and from motifs by Stradella. The often-reviled Raymond Leppard never made so bold as to compose Cavalli's music for him in L'Ormindo or La Calisto. Jacobs, who is in much better odor with the seventeenth-century scholarly crowd, does so and gets away with it brilliantly. But it is just such a willingness to take chances in order to make the music live again that characterizes all the conducting and editing and countertenoring of this fascinating, brainy, and rather enigmatic musician.

The performances are very strong throughout the long score. Many of the singers are familiar exponents of this sort of music—Michael Chance, Agnès Mellon, Guy de Mey, Dominique Visse—and they are here at the top of their form; Dominique Visse displays an entirely new aspect of himself in his outrageously campy (but always musical) portrait of the old hag Delfa, lusting after young male flesh but unable to get any. New to me and a discovery of major proportions is the mezzo-soprano Goria Banditelli, who has a sumptuous voice and all the acting skills to make Cicognini's strange concept of Medea take wing; she does full justice to Jacobs's insert aria. Catherine Dubosc is equally musical though less memorable in the role of Hypsipyle, one of the two totally serious roles in the opera; if her two long lamenti don't take wing, the fault is Cavalli's, not hers. Demo the stutterer is sung by another singer new to me, a tenor with the astonishing name of Gianpaolo Fagotto; in brief, he surpasses the promise of his name. No one save Daffy Duck has ever stuttered like Signor Fagotto. The ensemble of instrumentalists plays lustrously and can give Jacobs as big a sound as he wants, despite their limited number; all play period instruments, needless to say. The sound is splendid, the literary backing exemplary, the libretto and trilingual translations all one could wish. There are, however, too few index numbers; they are doled out by the scene rather than by the aria, so that much that goes on within individual scenes cannot be quickly retrieved.

*(This refers to the 1989 original issue)


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