FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602 – 1676): Giasone—David Hansen (Giasone), Celeste Lazarenko (Medea), Miriam Allan (Isifile), Christopher Saunders (Demo), David Greco (Oreste), Andrew Goodwin (Egeo), Adrian McEniery (Delfa), Nicholas Dinopoulos (Ercole), Alexandra Oomens (Alinda); Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, on 5 and 7 – 9 December 2013; Pinchgut LIVE PG004; 2CD, 150:40; Available from Pinchgut Opera and major music retailers]
The listener for whom this enthralling recording of Francesco Cavalli’s masterful 1649 opera Giasone is a first introduction to Australia’s Pinchgut Opera might reasonably surmise that this is the best opera company in the world. Without question, the endeavors of Pinchgut Opera represent all that can be right with opera in the Twenty-First Century. Focusing on specific niches in the operatic repertory not out of necessity but with true advocacy, Pinchgut’s productions unite enthusiasm with musicological expertise, rich veins of indigenous talent, and community involvement. Every opera company faces extraordinary challenges in today’s climate of budgetary hostility towards the Performing Arts, but Pinchgut’s efforts succeed when so many other companies’ fail because their initiatives present opera at its most democratic: of the people, by the people, and for the people. Dedication to under-appreciated music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries is a dangerous gamble in any market, but the arresting quality of this recording of Giasone that explodes from the discs in every moment of the performance is the complete refusal to approach the music with the kind of stolid reverence granted to a tired exhibit in a museum. No, this Giasone is a mate with whom one might share a few pints of Foster’s on a Saturday night. Opera for the masses is an inherently condescending notion, but Pinchgut Opera’s productions lead the way in making even long-forgotten scores accessible and memorable. It is not about making an opera premièred in 1649 ‘relevant’ to modern audiences: Pinchgut’s performances aim to be revelatory, and this recording of the 2013 production of Giasone reveals that the real magnificence of opera continues to be, as it has always been, in the earnest performance of great music by singers and musicians who love what they do.
Musically, Cavalli’s compositional idiom is markedly advanced from the more familiar style of Claudio Monteverdi, whose operas for the insular Mantuan court are the headwaters from which the streams of operatic creativity have flowed in the subsequent four centuries. Writing for the more resourceful theatres of Venice, Cavalli lavished on his scores melodic prodigality that continues to impress and adventurous harmonies that sometimes sound surprisingly modern. A master of dramatically momentous chromaticism, Cavalli expanded the lean Monteverdian recitative into musically prodigious progressions of arias and arioso. Still, the recording of staged performances of a continuo-driven opera like Giasone presents an array of pitfalls to engineers. The closed-minded listener accustomed to the antiseptic tidiness of studio recordings may intermittently find this recording slightly hard going. There are stage noises galore in this performance, but this is recorded opera at its most visceral: every footstep, every clang and clatter enhances the sense of absorption evinced since the first bar of the opera’s Sinfonia. Hearing the audience’s laughter is delightful and provides contrast with the score’s more contemplative numbers, during which the histrionic probity of the singing silences every cough and chat. The meticulously-balanced acoustics of the recording ensure that musical details are never obscured, and a very welcome sense of space is maintained without voices losing focus. Unlike many recordings of live performances, Pinchgut LIVE’s Giasone offers the listener an opportunity to experience the production almost as audiences in Sydney must have done: with sound of this immediacy, these discs enable the listener to hear a real performance of Giasone rather than merely a recording of one.
Under the direction of Pinchgut’s co-Artistic Director Erin Helyard, the playing of the Orchestra of the Antipodes matches the highest standards of historically-informed performance practices without ever seeming inhibited by them. Indeed, this recording is as vibrant an example as has ever appeared on discs of the extent to which understanding and respect of the musical traditions of the past can secure opera’s future. The musicians’ adherence to the style of the time of Giasone’s creation is unswerving, but this consistency is crucial to the evocation of the effervescent atmosphere in which this performance plays out. Tuned to modern concert pitch (A = 440 Hz), the orchestra’s playing is such a vital, scintillating part of the performance that the musicians deserve to be cited individually as members of the cast. The bar-raising performances by violinists Julia Fredersdorff and Matthew Greco, violists John Ma and James Eccles, cellist Anthea Cottee, Laura Vaughan on gamba and lirone, Kirsty McCahon on violone, Simon Martyn-Ellis on Baroque guitar and theorbo, James Holland on theorbo, Kamala Bain on recorders, Neal Peres Da Costa at the Italian harpsichord, Donald Nicholson at the Neapolitan harpsichord, and percussionist Brian Nixon (he rumbles and chimes smashingly on timpani, tenor and bass drums, tambourine, and Turkish cymbals) have their own distinct life, and they blend their unique timbres in a glorious noise that produces song without words. Presiding from the continuo organ and regal, Maestro Helyard carefully but unobtrusively manages the hairpin turns in the drama with humor and an utterly disarming lack of hubris. The orchestra’s playing and Maestro Helyard’s conducting are so unaffected that nothing seems artificial: in this setting, singers carrying on conversations and sorting out dilemmas in arioso seem the most ordinary things in the world.
Fusing elements of the original structure of the opera at its 1649 première with something of the ethos of the revised version of the opera performed in Rome in 1671, when Cavalli’s score was likely supplemented by arias composed by Alessandro Stradella, the edition of the score used for Pinchgut’s production omits the allegorical Prologue and tightens the drama by streamlining minor characters. In a real sense, though, there are no minor characters in this production of Giasone. Every figure in this story has something to lose, and each singer gives a performance that compellingly suggests absolute dedication. As the cynical Alinda, soprano Alexandra Oomens sings charmingly, the bemused irony of her performance of the Despina-like ‘Per prova sò che infonde Amor nell'alme aspro’ rippling with wit. In the third scene of Part Two, she hurls out the text of ‘Quanti soldati, o quanti’ and the aria ‘Gradite tempeste, procelle adorate’ with controlled exuberance, and her phrasing in the duet with Ercole, ‘Non più guerra, non più furore,’ is wonderfully unruffled. If tenor Adrian McEniery is not having a grand time portraying Medea’s geriatric nurse Delfa, he pretends very convincingly. Having renounced fickle love in her dotage, Delfa expounds her credo of sorts in ‘Voli il tempo,’ pronounced with gusto by Mr. McEniery. He fumes and fusses through ‘Godi, godi, bella coppia’ and ‘Qual hor su queste guancie’ with brio. Vocally, he husbands his resources with obvious self-knowledge, minimizing the use of wearying mannerisms, and he brings comedy to every scene in which he appears. Tenor Christopher Saunders’s jaunt through Demo’s music is similarly strong of technique and sentiment. Mr. Saunders sings ‘Son gobbo, son Demo, son bravo’ very handsomely, and his boundless energy makes the character more of a true presence in the opera than an occasional source of comic relief. Tenor Andrew Goodwin also revels in his creation of a subtle but strikingly individual Egeo, and his lines in the duet with Demo, ‘Alla nave, alla nave,’ are sung with great comic timing and focused tone.
The rôles for low-voiced gentlemen are sung with epic technical control by bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos and baritone David Greco. As Ercole, Mr. Dinopoulos lacks none of the burly masculinity of this legendary hero. His famous labors behind him, Ercole lent his brawn to the Argonauts’ expedition to seize the golden fleece, and Mr. Dinopoulos lends his resonant voice and charismatic self-assurance to this performance of Giasone. His singing of the opening scene, ‘Dal’Oriente porge l'alba,’ is suitably robust, and his annoyance with Giasone’s amorous dalliances is amusingly evident throughout the performance. His dueting with Isifile in Part Two is extraordinarily charming, and he impresses in every scene in which he appears with his uncanny combination of firm, ringing tone throughout his range and great flexibility. Mr. Greco’s performance of Oreste’s ‘Fiero amor l’alma tormenta’ in Part One is entrancing, and the sincerity that he devotes to ‘Adoriamoci in sogno, anima mia’ in Part Two is endearing. Like Mr. Dinopoulos, Mr. Greco displays unflappable technical affinity for Cavalli’s music, and his lovely timbre gives Oreste a distinct musical and dramatic profile.
Soprano Miriam Allan’s portrayal of Isifile, the put-upon Queen of Lemnos, is one of the greatest joys of this recording and one of the most purely beautiful performances of Seventeenth-Century vocal music ever preserved on discs. The timbre is one of polished gold from the bottom to the top of the voice, and, not content to rely solely upon the beauty of the voice to carry her character’s emotions to every heart in the audience, she sings with perpetual imagination. Ms. Allan’s phrasing of Isifile’s lament in the tenth scene of Part One, ‘Lassa, che far degg’io’ is dignified and thoughtful to the point of being unbearably poignant, but the sting of her words is healed by the dulcet balsam of her singing. In Part Two, the variety of her singing is brilliant, her characterizations of Isifile’s shifting sentiments conveyed via a deftly-handled palette of vocal colors. The tremulous elation of ‘Gioite, festosi, miei spiriti amorosi’ shimmers in Ms. Allan’s voicing of the music, particularly as she ascends into her sparkling upper register, and her scene with Ercole draws from her singing of ardor and wit. In the opera’s final scene, as Isifile’s confusion and dismay give way to hard-earned happiness, Ms. Allan’s singing of ‘Infelice, ch’ascolto’ assumes an even greater brilliance, the serenity of her delivery infusing the opera’s final moments with an aura of genuine resolution. By any standard, Ms. Allan’s singing is exquisite: in the context of recorded performances of Cavalli’s music, she sets a standard that will be virtually impossible to surpass.
Cavalli’s Medea is not quite the fire-breathing virago depicted by Cherubini and Mayr, but she is no wilting flower. Adventurous soprano Celeste Lazarenko takes no prisoners in her volatile, scene-stealing impersonation of Medea in this performance, and her darker, more sinewy timbre contrasts handily with Ms. Allan’s voice. In ‘Se dardo pungente,’ Medea’s strophic aria in the third scene of Part One, Ms. Lazarenko’s singing boils with inner agitation, but in the invocation of Plutone later in Part One, ‘Dell’antro magico,’ she unleashes a formidable discharge of temperament. Cavalli’s genius seems transported for a few moments to the world of Gluck, and the unrestrained force of Ms. Lazarenko’s singing blows through the performance like a cyclone. Still, every note that leaves her throat is unpretentiously stylish. The psychological depth that she imparts in ‘Sotto il tremulo ciel di queste frondi,’ Medea’s exchange with Giasone in the sixth scene of Part Two, is intriguing. After so much strife, there is a fantastic ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ aspect to Ms. Lazarenko’s singing in the last minutes of the opera. Ms. Lazarenko is a singer who holds nothing back, musically or dramatically, in her performances. In many singers, this can lead to inconsistency: for a singer as gifted as Ms. Lazarenko, it is the portal to vocal and theatrical luminosity.
In this performance more than in any of his other recordings to date, David Hansen proves that he is precisely as he cheekily describes himself: a ‘guy who sings high.’ That he sings splendidly will come as no surprise to those acquainted with his work, but it is impossible to overstate the electric impact with which his magnetic stage presence charges through this recording. He is no androgynous-sounding overgrown choirboy singing opera to pay the rent: he is, in terms of sensual physicality and white-hot vocalism, the Franco Corelli of countertenors, and, simply put, what he brings to his portrayal of Giasone is sex in the mezzo-soprano range. From his first entrance in Part One, ‘Delizie e contenti che l’alme beate,’ Mr. Hansen rockets through this performance with grit and grandeur, and his voice, always an instrument of superb quality, has in the past couple of years grown richer and more integrated throughout his uncommonly extensive range. The brief ‘Dolor, ahi non m’uccidere’ inspires him to exalted expressivity, and the tenacity of his singing of ‘Affetti singolari’ elevates his portrayal of Giasone from heroic resilience to indisputable stardom. The sizzling sultriness that Mr. Hansen exudes in Giasone’s encounter with Medea in the second scene of Part Two, ‘Scendi, o bella, vieni al porto,’ deserves a parental guidance classification rating. His emotional directness in ‘Ovunque il piè rivolgo’ is riveting, but it is the nobility of his singing with Isifile in ‘Non ho più core in petto’ in the final scene that is rightly the summit of his performance: from such a height of musicality, the listener can survey the whole history of opera, and it is unimaginable that the greatest castrati of the Seventeenth Century could have sung Giasone as thrillingly—and touchingly—as Mr. Hansen does in this recording.
It is unlikely that more than a few people who entered Sydney’s City Recital Hall Angel Place to see the Pinchgut Opera production of Cavalli’s Giasone that produced this recording were acquainted with the music, but it is less likely that any of them departed without having been unforgettably entertained and enlightened by Pinchgut’s visionary presentation of this kaleidoscopic score. Opera companies of the world, learn from Pinchgut’s example: focus on discovering what you do well, and then devote yourselves to doing it better than anyone else. Cavalli’s Giasone is unquestionably a denizen of ‘fringe’ repertory, but if performances of the quality on display in this recording were being achieved in the music of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini would anyone be speaking seriously of the demise of opera?