Cher Public

Witch of the season

Noticing how often she turns up lately, one might guess that the operatic “heroine” for the global economic crunch is Medea, the mythological Greek sorceress and filicide. 

This month the controversial Nadja Michael returns to Brussels for a revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Cherubini’s Médée in its original version, unlike the Zangarini/Lachner bastardization recently produced by Glimmerglass with Alexandra Deshorties. Next summer Michael returns to Munich for a revival of the Hans Neuenfels production of Mayr’s Medea in Corinto which is also due for release on DVD soon.

After singing Médée in Lully’s Thésée in Paris a few years ago, Anne-Sofie von Otter portrayed Charpentier’s virago at the Oper Frankfurt in June, while Handel’s version of Medea (in his opera Teseo) turned up in concert in Paris and on stage at the Göttingen Handel Festival and is set to invade the Chicago Opera Theater next spring.  Even Broadway’s most recent Euripides Medea—Fiona Shaw—has returned to wreaking havoc as a witch on television’s vampire saga True Blood.  So it should be no surprise that Opera Omnia has chosen yet another depiction of this iconic anti-heroine for its return to the New York City scene with a production of Francesco Cavalli’s 1649 Il Giasone which opened Thursday night at the West Village bôite Le Poisson Rouge.

Unfortunately, Cavalli’s Medea may be disappointing for those used to the traditional man-eating, child-killing enchantress.  Other than the dramatic incantation scene summoning up the magic powers with which to aid Jason (Giasone) that ends the first act, this Medea is more of the self-dramatizing hypotenuse in the love triangle that is at the center of this decidedly mock-heroic opera about the leader of the Argonauts and abductor of the Golden Fleece (depicted here as a sleeveless jean jacket embossed with a lamb’s head).  As in many Venetian operas of this time, the world of Giasone isn’t dominated just by characters of the nobility or myth; it’s also filled with stuttering hunchbacks and advice-spouting nursemaids in drag who grab as much stage time as their more serious-minded masters.

Commercial opera was still in its infancy in the 1640s and operas were a disposable product: written, performed, and then discarded in favor of the next new one.  However, Giasone was different, the most popular opera of its era revived well over 20 times all over Italy and coming down to us in many editions from a time an opera was lucky to survive in even a single version. Eventually Cavalli became so famous that he was invited to France by Cardinal Mazarin to compose an opera to commemorate the marriage of Louis XIV to the Infanta of Spain.

Wisely Opera Omnia has chosen to present Giasone in English using an edition prepared by the late Paul Echols for the Mannes Camerata in the 1980s.  Since Venetian opera is drama-driven and extremely talky, it would have been particularly challenging for the audience at Le Poisson Rouge to have to listen to the original Italian and try to follow surtitles while eating and drinking as well.

The performance was also much cut: the René Jacobs recording runs nearly four hours in an edition which he admits represents only about 90% of the extant music.  Opera Omnia’s version includes only about two and a half hours of music; while over a third is missing, the basic structure remains. The most damaging cut omits entirely Isifile’s long monologue from the first act (“Lassa, che fer degg’io”) diminishing her importance as the third member in the love triangle.

Watching Opera Omnia’s self-described “commedia dell’arte/Italian street theater” approach I understood why this opera became so popular, but unfortunately it was more in spite of rather than because of the crude and campy production unfolding in front of me.  Crystal Manich’s desperately unfunny direction turned virtually every moment into an “elbow-to-the-ribs” joke largely ignoring Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s libretto’s more subtly complex notions about love and fidelity and seriously compromising much of Cavalli’s ravishing music.

When everything is played for as many laughs as possible, how is one supposed to respond, for example, to King Egeo, so in love with Medea that he demands that she kill him so that he doesn’t have keep on living with her disdain?  If you stage that scene as broad farce making Egeo a joke, how then to respond to the ravishing lament that Cavalli writes for him (well performed by baritone Matthew Singer) later in the opera?  And so instead of being surprised and moved by the final reversal when Egeo saves Medea from drowning and she at last recognizes his steadfastness and agrees to marry him, we’re forced by the singers’s wink-and-nudge mugging to simply guffaw at it.

Certainly the opera contains an amusing mixture of high and low characters and intentionally incongruous situations, but even the stuttering hunchback is not merely a figure of fun but has pithy comments to make about characters around him.  If Manich wanted to stage a farce, why not find one and do so?  Her program note describing her initial inability to penetrate Cicognini and Cavalli’s world until she came up with her commedia dell’arte “concept” reads like an admission of defeat, particularly as she also peppers her production with all sorts of 21st century anachronisms.  I hasten to add, however, that the well-lubricated crowd at Le Poisson Rouge loudly heehawed at every opportunity so perhaps Manich succeeded in her aim, if at the expense of the integrity of the complicated serio-comic work she was charged with presenting.

Cavalli’s music moves effortlessly from recitative to a more lyrical arioso and then back, and sometimes there are full-out arias such as Giasone’s famous entrance “Delizie contenti.”  Whenever a character begins an extended solo, Manich has that singer grab and adjust a tall mic stand holding a live microphone and sing his or her aria directly into it—an increasingly distracting conceit repeated more than a half dozen times during the opera—and to what purpose?

While none of the cast revealed noteworthy voices, all displayed a competent grasp of the difficult seventeenth century idiom.  Since the singers seemed game, it’s too bad there was virtually no ornamentation added to the vocal lines. Throughout diction was extraordinarily clear helping the audience navigate the intricate plot although it also revealed the occasional moments when the generally effective translation verged on doggerel.

Displaying some welcome temperament as Medea, mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn—who had excelled in the Wooster Group’s recent astonishing mash-up of Cavalli’s La Didone with a Mario Bava sci-fi flick—here often sounded worn and forced, weaknesses shared with her bland paramour Cherry Duke in the title role. Joined by Katherine Dain’s pinched Isifile, this central trio didn’t provide much pleasure in Cavalli’s most attractive vocal writing.

The smaller roles were more felicitously cast: Karim Sulayman’s stylish Delfa was a vocal standout; unfortunately his portrayal became a compendium of every bad drag queen flounce and swirl ever seen. Sharin Apostolou revealed a sparkling voice as Alinda, but she too overacted with lots of campy eye-rolling business.  Isai Jess Muñoz sounded promising as Demo (the stutterer) but his relentless gyrations became so distracting it was hard to concentrate.

The brightest aspect of the evening was the alert and polished playing of the seven-member period instrument band led from the harpsichord by Avi Stein.  Particularly impressive were Robert Mealy and Daniel Le, the violinists, and the superb Motomi Igarashi on gamba and lirone.

For all the advances in presenting this music in the most authentic way possible, a tradition Opera Omnia clearly aspires to, I sometimes yearn for the anachronistically sumptuous editions created for Glyndebourne by Raymond Leppard that brought Cavalli (and Monteverdi) back into vogue during the 60s and 70s and helped me fall in love with Cavalli in the first place.  Leppard’s recording of L’Ormindo is virtually impossible to find, but his La Calisto can be tracked down on CD and an entrancing video snippet of the Glyndebourne production shows that even a god-nymph pseudo-Lesbian seduction duet can be done with wit and charm:

For those desiring a more authentic approach, a newer L’Ormindo stylishly done by Les Paladins on Pan Classics is appealing, as is the famed Herbert Wernicke production of “La Calisto” available on DVD conducted by Jacobs.  Lucky audiences in France and Luxembourg this season will get to experience Les Arts Florissants’s La Didone, its first Cavalli opera ever.

A 2008 production of La Doriclea at Juilliard showed better what can be done tackling a difficult Cavalli work with imagination (and no budget) and proved to be both funny and moving.  The previously mentioned Wooster Group production showed that mixing time periods can work more successfully than it did for Opera Omnia or the musically superb but grossly over-produced David Alden production of La Calisto I saw in Munich.

Based on this often misbegotten Il Giasone, it’s sad to report that this young company—with a salutary commitment to a repertoire grossly under-represented in New York City—appears to have little faith in a work it purports to champion.

Photos: Joseph Manich