Cavalli is a rather neglected composer. Something like thirty of his operas exist but few are ever performed and only one, La Calisto, appears at all frequently. It’s hard to see why. He was Monteverdi’s pupil and a worthy successor whose work was decidedly popular in his lifetime. It’s even harder to see why a work like Elena could have been ignored for 350 years before being revived at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2013. It’s really got the same things going for it as Il coronazione di Poppea. There’s sex, homoeroticism, mythology, cross dressing, a weird (Shakespearean?) mix of the serious and the comic and some really lovely music. The only downside I can see is a rather convoluted plot and the fact that one of the leading roles was written for a high castrato.
So what’s it about? Basically the Helen of the title is the daughter of Leda and Zeus but it’s set way before her abduction by Paris. There’s an allegorical prologue where Discord sets up the golden apple story but apart from upsetting the relevant three goddesses it doesn’t really advance the plot. In Act 1 we meet Helen, who is obsessed by sports, and Menelaus, who is obsessed by Helen. Menelaus gets his mate Diomede to pretend that he is a slave dealer and Menelaus, disguised as an Amazon, is a captive who he wishes to give to Tyndarus, Helen’s putative father, as a wrestling instructor for Helen. Tyndarus falls madly in love with Menelaus, now Elisa. There’s a pretty hot wrestling scene and, for some reason, two bears.
Enter Theseus and his sidekick Pirithous who plan to abduct the “girls” because Theseus is fed up with his betrothed Hippolyta, who is a bit butch. It gets rapey. The boys sing a duet, “Because women, being vexatious, only give in when they are forced”. Abduction follows leaving Helen’s maid to lament “Who will abduct me? Who will ravish me?” The action moves from Sparta to Corinth where everyone it seems is hunting for the abductor/ees. Theseus “seduces” Helen. Elisa somehow fights off Pirithous. Hippolyta arrives in a snit but thinks the better of killing Theseus. In fact she foils an attempt to do so by the Corinthian prince Menestheus who wants Helen for himself. Menelaus reveals himself to Helen. Her brothers; Castor and Pollux (and the rest of the Argonauts) show up to rescue Helen. Theseus is reconciled with Hippolyta and Menelaus and Helen become an item. This is the simplified version!
The plot may be convoluted but it gives both librettist and composer a lot of opportunities to create the kind of scenes and music that Venetian audiences wanted. There are comic, even ridiculous, elements like the scene with the bears. There are multiple lamenti. There are gorgeous love duets. Interestingly when Menelaus and Helen are love duetting he tends to get the higher line. There must have been some seriously high castrati around (or maybe the original Elena, who was a courtesan rather than a professional singer, didn’t have much in the way of high notes). In fact, like Poppea, the music is almost all for high voice. There’s one bass and a couple of high tenors but most of the male roles are castrato roles sung here by a mix of counter tenors and mezzos.
Director Jean-Yves Ruf goes for a timeless, vaguely 17th century look with the small stage of the Théâtre du Jeu des Paume made even smaller by surrounding panelling. The action therefore takes place in a very constricted space. He does a skilful job of managing the comic and serious elements so nothing seems too jarring. His young cast seem quite at home in the idiom. Helen and Menelaus are played by Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth and Menelaus by Rumanian counter tenor Valer Barna-Sabadus. He is a really interesting voice. He seems to have a truly remarkable upper register. Singing higher most of the time than the soprano. She has a really beautiful easy voice coupled with the looks to make a convincing Helen. The rest of the cast are young, idiomatic and very effective. The pit band is the Capella Mediterranea under their music director Leonardo García Alarcón. There are eleven of them in total and they seem totally at home with this music including its improvised elements.
Technically the disk is a bit odd. It’s generously spread over two DVDs (no Blu-ray version) but the only soundtrack is Dolby stereo. It looks and sounds OK but is hardly state of the art for 2013. The only subtitles offered are French and English. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet is a sumptuous hardback trilingual (English, French, German) affair packed with information about the work and the production. Video direction is heavy on very unnecessary close ups. It’s a tiny stage after all!
So, all in all this is an oddity but a rather enjoyable one.