Sunday, June 14, 2009

ELIOGABALO

Cavalli in Hampshire

First performance in England (Grange Park Opera, June 6) of one of forty or so operas by Cavalli. Who he? Pier Francesco Cavalli 1602-76, probably a pupil of Monteverdi and certainly his successor as Master of the Music at St. Mark’s, Venice. Glyndebourne did his L’Ormindo and La Calisto in hepped-up versions by Raymond Leppard some time ago. This one, Eliogabalo was composed in 1668 but apparently not performed until 331 years later, in Italy. Should we all rush to see the second production? Perhaps.

And who was Heliogabalus? He was a Roman Emperor and extremely bad news; he didn’t fiddle while Rome burned but he was just as wicked while he lived; which was not long; he was murdered in AD222 at the age of just eighteen. The opera is a tangled web mainly concerning three couples, the tangling not unknotted because of gender-bending. Heli (for short) was written for a castrato but since docking is not popular now it was sung at Grange by a female soprano (Renata Pokupic), likewise his military opponent, Alessandro (Julia Riley). The plot sickens with Heli’s nanny Lenia, sung by the tenor Tom Walker (better legs than most nannies); and so it goes on, a regular la ronde of sexes, lovers, mistresses both carded and discarded.

Cavalli’s music is very much of its time, a time when operas were only just beginning to be more than plays with continuous music. If any action there be, it occurs in recitative; there follows sometimes an aria or an arioso, dwelling on the emotion set up in the recit.; love, hate, jealousy, aggression or what have you. There is some comedy aboard, a couple of good numbers on a recurring bass, occasionally a concerted number, rarely a chorus. Alas, Cavalli does not possess the divine spark that Monteverdi’s music has, it rumbles on agreeably but, as a navy man might say, there are not enough shots in his locker. There is a lot of monotony because the various gambits of melody and harmony are not varied enough. Mind you, most of the singing was good and so was the ‘authentic’ orchestra with some nice trumpets, sackbut’s in plenty, harpsichord, harp and those forebears of the double-bass, theorbos whose long necks protrude from the pit like periscopes. Christian Cumyn was the conductor keeping things lively and timely.

I think the voices were miked and the vocal level was formidable. Staging and lighting were highly professional. The director/designer David Fielding had opted for updating (to about 1980) and a jazzy approach. Thus we had a car and a motor-bike on stage, a lift, scenes in a washroom (very mod. Con.) and playboy bunnies rabitting about. Good legs seemed as much a pre-requisite as a good voice.

A good section of the audience (full house) seemed well pleased with the whizzy-dizzy show but some of us were starved of memorable music. Heli was the second offering this season of Grange Park Opera (nr. Winchester) whose season opened with Norma and will continue until August with Flying Dutchman, The Cunning little Vixen and Rigoletto. The venue is a partly crumbling Palladian-type mansion set in glorious Hampshire countryside. Mérite un détour.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

Glad you enjoyed the music - just FYI, the "trumpets" were in fact cornetti, THE melody instrument of the 17th Century, constantly vying with the violin for the prime roles. They are fingered like recorders, made of wood covered with leather, with a trumpet-like mouthpiece.
I agree that 17C opera style is (at the least!) an acquired taste, and don't deny that Monteverdi was probably a better exponent, but I think a lot of the difficulty lies in our attempts at performance - I'm not sure that even our best singers have really discovered the way to sing 17C recitative in the moving and impressive way it must have been sung originally, although they have certainly come a long way since the pioneering attempts by Leppard & co. One day I would love to hear a performance that follows the rhythms in the score, doesn't allow vibrato to obscure the pitch (especially in chromatic passages), and truly puts the text first. Just my 2p-worth!