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Keeping it in the family

St Sepulchre-without-Newgate
07/04/2002 -  and 5 July 2002
Francesco Cavalli: Erismena
Andrew Slater (Erimante), Jonathan Peter Kenny (Idraspe), Lynda Lee (Erismena), Joseph Corbett (Argippo), Heather Shipp (Orimeno), Charlotte Page (Aldimira), Paul McNamara (Flerida)

David Adams (conductor), James Conway (director)

Opera Theatre Company, Dublin

Francesco Cavalli is in a way to Italian opera what Shakespeare is to English theatre. Cavalli didn't invent commercial music theatre, but he was almost in at the start -- he is supposed, as a student of Monteverdi, to have persuaded the grand old man to produce Poppea and Ulisse for the public stage after a lifetime of work for patrons. And Cavalli himself wrote a large number of operas that were highly successful in their time and are still good value today. His music is similar to that of Monteverdi's operas, through composed and probably not particularly demanding technically but inseparable from the drama. And the dramas are thoroughly of their time, with complex plots, dramatic recognitions, comic servants and cross-dressing both within and outside the plot.

Erismena seems to be based on a lost tragedy of the same title whose plot is summarized by a later source, but it ties several more knots in the web and comes closed to defying summary. The eponymous heroine is disguised as a warrior, a captive beauty Aldimira falls in love with "him" and dumps her two current lovers as well as continuing to spurn Erimante, the king of Media. Erimante recognizes the disguised warrior from a dream as the person who will take his kingdom away from him, and so tells one of Aldimira's ex-lovers to kill the warrior. The attempt fails because Erismena recognizes her would-be killer as the man who broke her heart and she faints dead away. Believing the warrior dead, Erimante tells Aldimira that she can have him if she can wake him. She does, and Erimante in a rage condemns the failed assassin and the warrior to fight to the death. As Erismena removes her armour, her sex becomes apparent. She turns out to be Erimante's daughter, while Aldimira turns out to be the princess of Iberia and long-lost sister of (whoops) her ex-lover, Idraspe. Erismena marries him, while Aldimira goes back to her other lover, who isn't related to anybody.

There was some head scratching among the audience at St Sepulchre as they read the synopsis programme before the performance (part of the City of London Festival), and not everyone was wiser at the end. Opera Theatre Dublin's production was economical and efficient, and presented the characters and action in a familiar format. The English verse translation, though, wasn't always incisive when it was audible in a church that helped the sparky small orchestra and to a lesser extent the singer's voices but deadened the words. The singers nevertheless gave spirited performances, and the generality of what was going on came over entertainingly and occasionally with some power.

Lynda Lee in the title role was stately and rather solemn, but vocally magnificent, while Charlotte Page was a suitably tarty Aldimira. Heather Shipp didn't get much chance to make an impact as Orimeno, the decent lover of Aldimira whose role is mainly to pair off with her at the end, though she delivered a passionate tirade against love from the pulpit. Andrew Slater was a fairly standard-issue baritone tyrant as Erimante. Jonathan Peter Kenny has gained a lot of presence in the past few years, but his voice is still light and pleasant, and he didn't really have the dramatic complexity required for Idraspe.

All the singers were probably limited by the constraints of the production, but particularly Joseph Corbett as the factotum Argippo and Paul McNamara as Aldimira's nurse-confidante Flerida. Neither of them really had the chance to work up the comedy of their roles, though both, and especially Corbett, sang well. Perhaps Flerida isn't quite as rich a role as Arnalta in Poppea, an obvious sister, but she is still potentially very funny and filthy. Argippo likewise is clearly similar to Elviro in Serse (also set by Cavalli), a wonderfully comic role in Nicholas Hynter's production for the ENO of Handel's version. Of course OTD don't have the resources of the ENO. This was a fair stab that suggested the potential for a much grander production.

H.E. Elsom



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