United Kingdom Cavalli, Jason: English Touring Opera and the Old Street Band / Joseph McHardy (conductor), Festival Theatre, Malvern, 26.10.2013. (RJ)
Jason, Clint van der Linde
Isiphile, Catrine Kirkman
Medea, Hannah Pedley
Hercules, Andrew Slater
Demus, Stuart Haycock
Delfa, Michal Czerniawski
Egeus, John-Colyn Gyeantey
Orestes,Piotr Lempa [/table]
Director, Ted Huffman
Lighting Designer, Ace McCarron
Fight Direction, Rachel Bown-Williams Ruth Cooper-Brown
Artistic Collaborator, David Herrezuelo
Translator, Ronald Eyre
Two nights ago I saw the superb South African counter-tenor Clint van der Linde playing a person of exemplary character in Handel’s Agrippina (review). Tonight he was back – but this time as a complete and utter cad in the title role of Francesco Cavalli’s opera, Jason. Premièred in 1649, to a libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, it predates Agrippina by some 60 years, but in a sense it felt more modern: while Handel’s characters follow the opera seria tradition of da capo arias, in Cavalli there is more interaction between them including a number of stunning duets.
A prior knowledge of Greek mythology is not necessary in order to appreciate Jason; this is essentially a comedy with a hint of tragedy, designed to entertain rather than enlighten the Venetians; the hero’s quest for the Golden Fleece is only incidental to the plot. The opera opens with Jason’s wedding to Medea despite the fact he already has a wife, Isiphile, at home on the island of Lemnos. Medea’s ex-lover, King Egeus, is mortified at the loss of Medea and determines to pursue her “to the ends of hell”. Cupid is infuriated by Jason’s behaviour and whips up a storm which drives all the protagonists to Lemnos where a distraught Isiphile is awaiting her husband’s return. In the end everything works out nicely but not before tears are shed, mistakes are made and dramatic confrontations occur.
American director Ted Huffman writes in the programme notes: “Our aim has been to create a world that is neither classical nor contemporary, but rather an invented world ……”. To my mind, though, the production had a modern feel, beginning with a traditional white wedding complete with tiered wedding cake. Jason (van der Linde) and Medea (Hannah Pedley) are clearly head over heels in love and express their feelings in a splendid duet while Delfa, the maid, (sung by Michal Czerniawski) recalls her own youthful follies. “I’ll defend the foolishness of love to the end,” she sings. Hercules, played by Andrew Slater, disapproves of Jason’s philandering, however, and is impatient to be off to battle; his swordfight with Jason while both are singing was particularly well staged.
Humour is provided by Piotr Lempa as Orestes, sent by Isiphile to spy on Jason, and Stuart Haycock as Demus, the stuttering, club-footed servant of Egeus, whose exchanges never fail to raise a smile. The role of Demus is a particularly challenging one in our politically correct age, but Haycock handles himself well so we laugh at the situations in which he finds himself rather than at his disabilities. Egeus (John-Colyn Gyeantey) himself also suffers from a significant disability: he cannot compete with Jason in the suavity stakes to win his lady – but he engages our sympathy from the start with his warm voice and sincerity of manner. “Love and torment go together,” he laments when he learns of Medea’s infidelity and in his desperation toys with suicide.
Hannah Pedley (Medea) is a convincing femme fatale who is not averse to using magic in order to exert her power. Catrine Kirkman as Isiphile, the wronged wife, does not appear until after the interval. Frail though she may seem as she pines for Jason, she soon comes into her own when Orestes reports on Jason’s extra-marital activities. “No longer deluded by castles in air/by cruelty defeated/by destiny cheated/I welcome despair,” is her reaction. Kirkman is a fine young singer and actress who already boasts a wide ranging repertoire, and I feel sure we will be hearing a great deal more of her.
The island of Lemnos soon starts to get crowded with folk washed up by the storm including Medea and Jason. Jason, still bewitched by Medea’s charms, decides he has to get rid of Isiphile and give orders to the trusty Hercules, who obeys them to the letter – with unintended consequences. The high point of the drama occurs when Isiphile offers her husband a dagger and urges him to kill her and his children she is carrying as she bids farewell to the world. The cad, who has also incurred the wrath of Medea, has a sudden change of heart – not a particularly convincing one in my view – and everyone goes off contented – including the Malvern audience.
This was an evening of glorious singing supported by the small but effective Old Street Band playing instruments of the period, including two theorbos, with Joseph McHardy at the helm. Samal Blak’s smart-looking set degenerated into a crumbling stately home in the second half of the performance, but this didn’t always work. It took a considerable stretch of the imagination to visualise it as the seashore after a tempest, and Medea being jettisoned into the sea out of a window rather than off a cliff. I also felt that more subdued lighting might have helped to explain why people failed to recognise each other in the dark. It was also surprising that despite the prolonged and appreciative applause the cast did not return for a second curtain call; I assume they had to rush off to catch the last train out of Malvern that night.
But these gripes apart, I am full of admiration for ETO for the way their energy and enterprise is breathing new life into forgotten masterpieces which are proving as fresh and entertaining today as they were for the residents of Venice centuries ago. I cannot recommend the opera trilogy they are currently performing too highly.
ETO’s autumn tour (which also includes The Coronation of Poppea, Agrippina, Music for a Venetian Orphanage and Handel: Music for Vespers) continues to Bath, Harrogate, Durham, Newcastle, Buxton, Sheffield, Warwick, Cambridge and Exeter. See www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.