Cavalli’s Giasone is a bit of a peculiar piece, It’s based on parts of the Jason/Medea/Golden Fleece story but it’s at heart a comedy. It was wildly popular in the 17th century then pretty much lapsed into obscurity though there is one recording available on DVD. It provides quite a lot of opportunity for sight gags and spectacle so one had to wonder how well it would play in a concert version as presented by the Toronto Consort last night. Actually they did quite well with it but let’s take a step back to talk about the piece for a minute.
It starts with a prologue in which Apollo and Cupid debate the ability of Love to alter Fate. We then move to Colchis where Jason has spent a year loafing around sleeping with a mysterious local beauty and fathering twins and generally not being very heroic. The beauty of course is Medea. Meanwhile we discover that Jason has a wife back home, Hypsipyle, with whom he also has twins. She has sent trusty Orestes to find out what’s happened to Jason but he falls in with the stammering hunchback Demo and goes off to the pub. Meanwhile Medea gives Jason a magic ring and conjures up various infernal powers by means of which he vanquishes all kinds of monsters and steals the Golden Fleece. They run off to Corinth. There’s also Medea’s former lover Aegeus who, having failed to get Medea to kill him runs off after them.
Somewhere along the way they end up canoodling on the beach in Hypsipyle’s neighbourhood. She finds them and wakes Jason while Medea pretends to still be asleep. Jason pretends to be reconciled with Hypsipyle but promises Medea to kill her. He orders his bestie Besso to throw into the sea the first woman who asks him if Jason’s command has been carried out. Unfortunately, Medea, eager to see how things are going wife murder plot wise shows up first and asks if Jason’s orders have been carried out. She gets chucked into the sea but is rescued by Aegeus. Jason is furious but Besso gets huffy and claims that he only kills one queen per day. Medea is now really mad at Jason and decides to return to Aegeus. Hypsifyle realises that Jason really meant for her to be killed and assumes he still intends to. At this point she sings one of the strangest passages in the entire history of opera:
supplicate per me questo crudele
che nel ferirmi ei lassi
queste mammelle da’ suoi colpi intatte,
acciò nutrisca almeno i figli mei
del morto sen materno un freddo latte.
Which translates as :
implore the cruel man on my behalf
that when he slays me
he spares my breasts at least,
so that my children can feed
on their dead mother’s cold milk.
It goes on for a while in much the same vein. It’s not your average comedy. Anyway at this point Jason is overcome with remorse, the two couples are reunited and there is a happy ending.
So how was the Toronto Consort’s version? It was more or less a concert presentation with singers in concert wear on the platform with the band and carrying scores. There were entrances and exits and, occasionally, props and a few attempts to convey action through movement. There was also much more body language than one would get at, say, an oratorio performance. There were no surtitles but the audience members were given a libretto and translation, pretty much as they would have in Cavalli’s day. The eleven member period instrument band was led from the keyboards by David Fallis. All in all it worked quite well though inevitably lacking the visual interest in things like the battle scene and Medea’s magic chamber.
There was a strong cast of period specialists led by Laura Pudwell in the title role. She was outstanding with clear diction and a rich, quite dramatic sound. Of the two sopranos, I much enjoyed Michele DeBoer’s full sounding and vividly characterised Medea. Katherine Hill (Cupid/Hypsipyle) has a reedier, brighter voice; arguably very apt for the role but I had trouble with her diction, even with libretto in hand. It was quite an affecting performance though and fans of the very bright, vibratoless approach to early works would probably be more than satisfied. Among the men, I enjoyed Kevin Skelton’s very agile tenor and Bud Roach’s very successful navigation of the buffo stuttering role of Demo. Solid efforts too from Paul Oros as Orestes and John Pepper as Bessus; the latter especially being very funny in his indignation at being regarded as inefficient at reginacide. The band was skilled at its task and David Fallis pushed things along at a brisk pace. This isn’t a short work, running something under three hours with the interval, but it didn’t feel over long.
I think it’s terrific that someone is prepared to do works like this in Toronto though, inevitably, I’d prefer to see them staged. I think if more people saw them done in their full glory people would come to realise that the 17th century has more to offer than three works by Monteverdi plus Dido and Aeneas. That said, I don’t think a concert performance like this will win over many of the La Bohème crowd. Those already familiar with this type of music though will find much to like in this production. It runs again tonight at 8pm (a baroque fanatic could conceivably catch the 4.30pm performance of Hercules at the COC and get to Trinity St. Paul’s in time) and at 3.30pm on Sunday. Tickets are available here.
FWIW, this was my first time in the balcony at Trinity St. Paul’s since the renovations. It’s less bum numbing than the old pews but not nearly as comfortable as downstairs!