This is the second opera I see in a week based on Jason’s quest of the “golden fleece”, together with his fellow Argonauts, and his love affair with Medea. This version, brought to the stage in 1649 by Francesco Cavalli, follows the original only vaguely: Cavalli needed a happy handing for the Venetian audience of the time, so the story needed to be altered quite a bit. The whole plot is in Colchis, Medea’s home; Jason is a serial philanderer, who has left in Lemno a seduced princess, Isifile, with their two twin children. He has come to Colchis to conquer the golden fleece, but he’s pretty busy with Medea, so much so that he fathered another couple of twins with her. Medea herself, in order to start this fruitful affair with Jason, has spurned an old lover, Egeo, who tries to win her back.
Hercules, and the other Argonauts, are growing restless, time passes and no golden fleece in sight; their boss has become soft and thinks only of love and pleasure. Isifile sends her servant Oreste from Lemno to Colchis to find out why isn’t Jason coming home; Oreste, talking with the stuttering servant of Egeo, Demo, discovers, with some difficulty, that Jason has another lover and he’s not coming back to Lemno any time soon.
Isifile goes to Colchis herself, finds Jason and claims him as her husband. Medea goes crazy jealous and asks Jason to kill Isifile. Jason shows all his manly courage and dodges the task, asking his aid Besso to do it. Besso screws up, and throws Medea instead of Isifile into the sea, but she will be saved by Egeo, who also jumps into the sea to the rescue. This softens Medea’s heart, so in the end she goes back to Egeo, and Jason is reunited with Isifile. Not clear what will happen to Medea and Jason’s twins, maybe they are doomed after all.
All this, in true baroque fashion, was discussed and decided by several gods fighting with each other and directing the plot.
The production was extremely enjoyable! The scenes were reminiscent of original XVII century sets: cardboard clouds to represent the heavens, cardboard trees and bushes for a forest, and so on. The costumes, on the other hand, were very eclectic. Medea in the first part is dressed like some sort of oriental stereotype, but then puts on a sensible suit. Isifile and her ladies in waiting are killing it in roaring twenties fashion (shoes to die for!), while the Argonauts are a mix between real-life mercenaries, and a sexy Village People version of them. Jason is dressed like the ship captain from Tin-Tin.
The gods, in all this, were dressed like they would have been in 1649: extravagant Seventeenth century fashion, with masks, and accessories to signify their character (bolts of lightning for Jupiter, and so on). The soprano playing Cupid, Mary Feminear, is running around in a pink foam suit which turns her into a giant baby: a “putto” in adult size. The suit included a whole baby head with blonde curls; I don’t know how she managed to sing so well with that thing over her head. She really has a good voice, well projected and beautiful.
The music is still in typical early baroque fashion: recitar cantando, a continuous flow of singing which includes moments where the hard recitativo technique is more present, for the sake of communicating the plot, and moments of indulgence in arias or duets which are more lyrical and melodic. In this period, around 1650, arias are beginning to be more recognizable: Cavalli was following the taste of the public, which demanded melodies to remember. Overall, the music can result a bit monotonous to the untrained ear (read: to the non-baroque-obsessed listener) and there were a couple of snorers around me in the theatre.
The orchestra was Cappella Mediterranea, conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón; I had already heard them in Eliogabalo, again by Cavalli, in Paris. They are amazingly good. The continuo is out of this world, they play from the beginning to the end, the whole action is on their shoulders, and their concentration and focus, not to mention their skill, is unbelievable. The rest of the orchestra, which is called to join in arias, duets, choruses and purely orchestral parts, is equally skilled and extremely communicative. The cornetti! They are incredible! Alarcón is constantly on top of everything and he is extremely good at following the singers. In this style, of continuous recitativo-like melody, it is extremely important that the conductor has a good understanding with the singers. Here, they were breathing together, moving together, and he was driving the action in a marvelous way.
Jason was Valer Sabadus, already heard in Eliogabalo in Paris, as well. His voice is kind of weak and subdued, unfortunately, and his timbre is a bit monochromatic. It is a pity, because he has very good coloratura and high notes. I have to say that the character of Jason is such a putz in this version of the story, that a somewhat weaker voice does fit. So in the end his characterization of Jason was not bad at all.
Medea was a mezzo soprano, just like in Charpentier, and the singer was Kristina Hammarström, a Swedish artist whose voice is very beautiful, but, just like Sabadus’ it is a bit monochrome. Not so much though, she projects better, and the quality of the timbre is very warm and round.
Kristina Mkhitaryan was Isifile, and her voice was one of the best on stage: a very smooth soprano, with plenty of harmonics, and great high notes. She has three big lament arias (one per act) and her legato was perfect, her style absolutely on the spot.
Another one of the best was her maid, Alinda, sung by the Argentinian soprano Mariana Florès, who had an extremely bright and brilliant voice, very strong and well projected, and a great stage presence. Her character is the flirty/silly maid, and she came out perky and funny, even if she was quite obviously pregnant.
And then we had Willard White singing Oreste (Isifile’s servant) and the god Jupiter. He must be around 70 by now, and his voice is still fantastic! I really like his booming bass, he has style and technique, and still looks like a million dollars on stage.
Hercules, Alexander Milev, was another booming bass, a voice maybe less elegant than White’s but very strong and powerful, I enjoyed him quite a bit. He was also in a foam suit, to beef up the muscles of his chest and arms.
Egeo, Medea’s first lover, to whom she returns in the end, was the tenor Raùl Gimènez, a typical light tenor, who sings Donizetti, Rossini and Mozart. He’s past his prime now, and I’ve never heard him before, so I don’t know if his faults are due to age, or they were always there, but he has a very strange emission. The voice in itself is supported and agile, and it does have a reasonably good color. But the emission is a bit all over the place. It starts well, down low, then it gets stuck in the nose after the first passaggio, and on the second passaggio it explodes in a much louder volume. Mind you, he’s not bad, he just sounds a bit like he’s not perfectly in control of his instrument. He was a very good actor though, and his lament aria in the first act came out pretty well.
Migran Agadzhanyan, another tenor, sang the comic character of Demo, with an amazingly good Italian pronunciation, I have to say. I was amazed to find out he’s very far from a native speaker. I had the feeling that his voice deserved a better character: Demo is a typical comedian, he stutters, he is a hunchback and he’s not very bright. His music is not that interesting, but the voice was very strong and beautiful. There were a lot of jokes based on Demo not being able to convey information quickly because of his stutter, and other characters becoming impatient and finishing the words for him: it was funny to see that one of the funniest scenes in A fish called Wanda (1988) was born as far back as 1649.
The baritone Günes Gürle was Besso, Jason’s aid who throws the wrong lover in the sea. He does not have a big part, but for some reason he gets some of the hardest coloratura in the whole opera. He came out alive, barely.
In this opera we find a character which is present in almost every baroque opera, and it keeps reappearing all the way to Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It is the old woman (where “old” means over 35, in this baroque context), a nurse/servant who is usually sung by a man, a lewd character who complains about having lost her beauty, and now nobody wants her, and isn’t life unfair. Here the character is called Delfa, and it was sung by the countertenor Dominique Visse, who was also the god Aeolus. As usual (for these types of characters) the voice was not very even, and the direction went overboard, showing several vulgar scenes of this “old” woman paying the Argonauts to bestow their sexual favours on her. A bit unnecessary, I thought; I mean, once it’s ok, but three times?
I have missed only one singers, so I will mention her. Soprano Seraine Perrenoud sang the role of the Sun god (Apollo) in the prologue. A very short part, but her voice was bright and very shining, as the Sun requires. And her costume was amazing!