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Another sparkler by Cavalli

Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre
04/04/2013 -  & April 5, 6, 214
Francesco Cavalli: Giasone
Laura Pudwell (Giasone), Kevin Skelton (Apollo, Egeo), Katherine Hill (Isifile, Cupid), Michele DeBoer (Medea), Bud Roach (Demo/Volano), Vicki St. Pierre (Demo), Paul Oros (Oreste), John Pepper (Besso)
The Toronto Consort, David Fallis (conductor), Guillaume Bernardi (literary and textual consultant)

Following last season’s Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne, the Toronto Consort has delighted us once again with a vibrant rarity by Francesco Cavalli. This time it is Giasone, premiered in Venice in 1649. According to the Consort’s invariably informative program notes, it became the most frequently performed opera of the 17th century. It is described as a tragicommedia as, while the characters are "serious" classical figures who were invariably the subjects of early opera, for the public of Venice there were also prominent roles for comedic characters, typically earthy, cynical servants. In this work, though, the treatment of the noble characters and their zany predicaments result in the work being more an out-and-out comedy. (Modern day parallels would be mordant films like I Love you to Death or Married to the Mob.)

It begins with a scene amongst the gods. Apollo asserts that Fate has decreed that his grand-daughter, Medea, will become the wife of the hero Jason. Cupid disputes this, asserting that no force, not even Fate, can overcome the power of his arrows. The action of the opera bears this out.

What follows is a variant of the Jason and Medea story, except in this one she does not murder their children after Jason has abandoned her (maybe that comes later). Soon after the two meet, Medea reveals that the woman Jason has been sleeping with (and has born him twins) is none other than her. This apparently secures his love for her. Just to complicate matters, another queen, Hypsipyle, has earlier also born twins to Jason; she persists in persuing him, much to Jason’s annoyance, just as Donna Elvira pursues Don Giovanni. Medea also has a rejected lover, Aegeus, king of Athens, no less. She ardently wishes he would kill himself. Commenting on the events are Delfa, Medea’s cynical nurse, who remarks on young women’s tendencies toward having children before marriage; Hypsipyle’s servant, Orestes (this is not Electra’s brother), who is not pleased serving a love-besotted woman; Aegeus’s servant, Demo, a stammering hunchback who is resigned to keeping his handsomeness to himself; and Bessus, one of Jason’s argonauts, who at one point declares he only kills one queen a day. The plot points tumble along at quite a pace (Toronto Consort once again provides a complete libretto for the edited version used) and it ends with two marriages, although the happiness and stability of each union is highly dubious. Venice at this time had established itself as the sybaritic playpen of Europe (the Las Vegas of the day); the racy goings-on in Giasone kept people coming back for more.

The main task in presenting a work such as this is to hire a singer for each role who is schooled in the requisite musical style and who can project an instantly recognizable characterization for the part. Mission accomplished! Mezzo-sporano Laura Pudwell is up to her usual high standard as Jason, a role originally intended for a castrato. The other mezzo part, the sharp-tongued Delfa, is also ably performed by Vicki St. Pierre - in fact one wishes the role were longer. Kevin Skelton proves a model of tenore leggiero as Aegeus (and Apollo) while tenor Bud Roach goes all out in characterizing Demo, a role that in the wrong hands could become a noisy bore. Sopranos Michele DeBoer (Medea) and Katherine Hill (Hypsipyle) present nicely contrasting soprano voices as the amorous queens. Medea gets to command the work, partly thanks to her invocation of the spirits of hell who will help Jason gain the golden fleece. (This happens very quickly so we can get back to the sex and violence of the main story. It really is quite, quite trashy - one ought to disapprove.)

Paul Oros (Orestes) and John Pepper (Bessus) also present thoroughly characterized portrayals in the two baritone roles.

While the opera was shortened somewhat for this presentation, David Fallis added two orchestral pieces - one to portray Jason’s battle with the guardians of the fleece and one for a concluding dance - from Gasparo Zanetti’s collection of dances called Il Scolaro.

The singers, the 11-member orchestra, and the audience all benefit from the improved acoustics of the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre’s partially renovated Jeanne Lamon Hall.

Michael Johnson



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