The Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli was a colleague and friend – and earlier possibly also a student – of Monteverdi. This may explain why some of the love duets for Giasone and Medea in Cavalli's Il Giasone may remind audiences of those for Nero and Poppea in Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea.
Il Giasone, composed in 1649, was Cavalli's tenth opera. Although most operas in Venice were performed for just one run in a single season, Il Giasone – premiered in the Teatro San Cassiano – was taken up by other Italian theatres and became the most successful seventeenth-century opera. These days it is rarely performed, so the Royal Academy Opera's recent run of two performances filled a gap and provided quality entertainment in the process.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to a score of Il Giasone. Even if for no other reason, Jane Glover's new (and, so far, unpublished) edition – especially made for these two performances at the Royal Academy of Music – is most welcome. Honouring seventeenth-century performance practice – which tailored compositions to the intended/available performers – Glover created her edition with the Royal Academy Opera's cast and performing conditions in mind. She made substantial cuts in length (thus shortening the performance time to approximately two hours) and appears to have deleted a handful of minor characters in the plot.
Although originally a 'drama musicale' in three acts with a prologue, Glover's version lacks the prologue and her Royal Academy Opera – Glover is Director of Opera at the Academy – performed the three acts in two parts with a twenty-minute interval. In spite (or because) of the cuts, the story-line was clear and the action was flowing at a comfortable space.
Based on Apollonius' Argonautica, Cicognini's libretto is a variation on the story of Giasone (Jason) of the Golden Fleece and Medea. Giasone is married with two children but cheats with his mistress Medea who also has two children by him. The rivalry between the two women is the main plot, but it is mixed with a few sub-plots which include a fair share of humorous situations.
Director John La Bouchardière emphasized the humour and seemed to have left the dramatic sections to flow naturally. He made several scenes/characters rather camp without overstepping the line of acceptable taste. Evidently Bouchardière aimed to entertain (rather than focus on dramatic tensions) and he fully succeeded.
The sets were economical but also functional and credible. The set designer would have deserved a mention in the programme notes, but s/he was conspicuous by his/her absence on the appropriate pages. However, costume designer Magali Gerberon and lighting designer Jake Wiltshire were duly mentioned and they do indeed deserve credit for their contribution to what was a basic but comfortable update of the plot to our present time.
The whole cast performed admirably, both vocally and dramatically. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth (Oreste) was funny when required but also excellent in his lyrical moments. Fu Quian (Alinda) radiated down to earth humour and is blessed with a strong but creamy voice. Soprano Nina Lejderman (Isifile) made the transition from the somewhat dull and abandoned wife to the true heroine of the plot convincingly. Her lament in Act Three seemed to have the audience spell-bound: one could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. I am not sure if counter-tenor Roderick Morris (Giasone) was entirely convincing as the sex-mad macho king, but soprano Kate Symonds-Joy's portrayal of Medea made the love plot believable. Due to last minute illness, the role of Demo was portrayed on the stage by director John La Bouchardière and sung from the orchestra pit by tenor Eliot Alderman. The director seemed to have and provide enormous fun but I was glad that he did not have to sing while executing all those agile movements. On the other hand, Alderman was outstanding. Clearly a highly intelligent artist, his diction is crystal clear – even when he is supposed to be stuttering – and he really tells a story. Baritone Jonathan McGovern oozed fun but stayed within taste in his camp portrayal of Delfa, the nurse (whose contralto part is transposed to baritone in Glover's edition).
Following seventeenth-century Venetian traditions, Glover's orchestra is dominated by two continuo groups – that is by two harpsichords, two theorbos and by two cellos (although only by one violone) – and is occasionally complemented by the two violins and two violas in the sinfonia and ritornello sections. The players were excellent; in particular cellist Thomas du Plessis, whose mature, sensitive and intelligent playing provided some of the musical highlights for me.
Jane Glover conducted her forces without a baton and she also played harpsichord continuo. Glover is not 'only' the editor of the new score but she was also fully integral to the performance, which was well judged in tempi and dynamics throughout. Students at the Royal Academy of Music are fortunate to benefit from such expertise as Dr Glover's.
By Agnes Kory
Photo: Jane Glover