In Pinchgut Opera’s production - the Australian premiere - this dynamic score enchanted as much as it must have more than 350 years ago.
— The Australian
The opera last night was just wonderful. The whole night sparkled with world-class professionalism on all fronts. Despite my jetlag, I was entranced with yet another BEST EVER from Pinchgut. I think Cavalli is an astonishing composer. His lyricism is incomparable and Erin’s work on the score was right up to standard. Sometimes I gasped at the cleverness and inventiveness of it. As for the singers: they were all exceptional, all first rate. Then all the ‘added pluses’: the wit and humour all through the night, but particularly in the first half; the director, Chas Rader-Shieber, couldn’t have found a more tuned in and turned on cast to highlight all the emotions portrayed in the work and that he milked for all they were worth. This was without doubt an exceptional night. It’s so worthy of Representing Australia and Pinchgut all over the world.
Giasone was brilliant! Superb singing, stunning orchestra, great acting, staging, design and direction...witty surtitles, huge range of emotions in a universal, engaging and though-provoking story. Huge congratulations to absolutely everyone involved. The Orchestra was awesome...if you can make it, GO! Not to be missed. A wonderful night at the Opera...no wonder it was so popular in its time.
Brilliant! Absolutely loved it - the set, the costumes, the acting, the voices and most especially the music. This will stay in my memory as one of the best. And for me, Miriam Allan’s performance was breathtakingly beautiful and utterly moving.
Well done again on Giasone. Bloody brilliant – one of the best productions I’ve seen in a long time.
1] Arcadians v. Argonauts
At the dawn of the 18th century, a group of opera-loving intellectuals in Rome decided to gather informally to discuss the future of the genre. They called themselves the ‘Arcadians’ and sought a return – as with all operatic reforms – to classical simplicity. Squarely in their sights for critique was the 17th century’s most performed opera of all time, Cicognini’s Giasone, set to music by Francesco Cavalli.
To the Arcadians, Giasone was their worst nightmare. Their spokesperson, Crescimbeni, allowed graciously that ‘it was [the] first and most perfect drama in existence’ but then went on to outline all the abuses committed by composer and librettist. Crescimbeni deplored the mixture of classes, as well as the impure combination of comedy and tragedy. Just as in Shakespeare – who was similarly criticised at the time – Cavalli’s Giasone placed ‘side by side, with a monstrousness never heard before, kings, heroes and other illustrious characters, and buffoons, servants and folk of the lowest extraction.’
The Arcadians felt that operas like Giasone epitomised everything that they wanted to expunge from the operatic tradition: strong female leads, men in drag, and improvised slapstick; even the aria itself, which they felt contributed to the overall decay of verisimilitude, was earmarked for expulsion. In fact, the Arcadians wanted to get rid of everything that had contributed to Giasone’s popularity.
Giasone was so popular in its day that it inspired a play which existed independently of the opera – a very rare phenomenon indeed. From its premiere in 1649, Giasone enjoyed unprecedented revivals all over Italy for 40 years. Why was it so popular? Seventeenth-century opera expert Ellen Rosand believes it was because Giasone represented an ideal meeting of music and drama. Gone was the stuffy literary atmosphere of earlier Venetian operas – in its place Cicognini developed a new kind of comic fluidity to complement the fast-paced (and complex!) action, all the while making sure to draw the serious characters and situations out with virtuosic lyric poetry.
Cavalli responded to Cicognini with equal skill and imagination. For the first time in the history of opera, librettist and composer seemed equally responsive to each other. In Giasone, writes Rosand, ‘the definitive separation of aria and recitative was finally achieved; formal distinctions were clarified by dramatic function, with recitative reserved primarily for action and commentary, and arias for formal songs or moments of intense, reflective feeling.’ Certainly the variegated audience in Venice at the time – the tourists, aristocrats, merchants, prostitutes, servants and intellectuals – felt that this recipe was a success, and that Cicognini and Cavalli had created a new and enduring kind of theatrical experience that could be enjoyed by anyone willing to buy a ticket. Giasone is the opera that began it all.
Cavalli began his illustrious career as a talented boy soprano. His sweet singing attracted the ear and patronage of the Venetian governor of Crema, Frederico Cavalli, from whom the talented young musician (then Caletti) later took his last name in gratitude. Under the governor’s protection, Cavalli entered the famed cappella of San Marco in Venice, then under the direction of Monteverdi. Whether the two had a formal pedagogical relationship is unknown, but doubtless the two composer / performers had a close association. Traces of Cavalli’s hand can be found in several of Monteverdi’s works, and Cavalli probably edited Monteverdi’s posthumously published Messa a 4 voci et salmi (Venice, 1650). Cavalli won the post of second organist at San Marco in 1639 and his organ playing won high praise; foreigners compared him favourably with the great Frescobaldi. Indeed, in 1655 the chronicler Ziotti observed that ‘truly in Italy [Cavalli] has no equal’ as vocalist, organist and composer.
Cavalli’s debut as an opera composer occurred in the same year he won his post at San Marco. At first, he was an impresario and administrator as well as a composer. At Venice’s first opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, Cavalli formed a company with a librettist, singer and dancing-master. Despite some initial financial problems, Cavalli’s troupe began to dominate the nascent opera industry. In the 1640s, Cavalli began working with a series of great librettists including Giovanni Francesco Busenello, then a member of the highly influential Accademia degli Incogniti, and his long-time collaborator, the brilliant Giovanni Faustini. Cavalli’s Egisto (1643) was the first of a series of runaway successes, being performed north of the Alps as well as all over the Italian peninsula. More spectacularly successful still was Cavalli’s setting of Cicognini’s Giasone (1649). Performances of this work quickly spread to almost every opera house in Europe.
Cavalli’s fame and success led him in the 1660s to Louis XV’s court in Paris, where his work had a lasting influence on Lully. He died wealthy and lauded, his vast collection of scores bequeathed to his best student Caliari – luckily still extant today.
Cavalli and Cicognini’s Giasone is essentially a story about fidelity and the resilience of the human spirit. But it is in the telling of that story that the composer makes the most remarkable choices about how to guide the audience through the startling variety of emotional journeys that take place therein. Cavalli and his librettist have managed to mix the lighter, more romantic-comic side of the adventure (a conniving Medea and an oversexed Giasone) with the melancholy elements of Isifile’s story (an abandoned woman, on the verge of madness over her lost husband).
The opera becomes by turns a charming and slightly risqué romantic adventure, that holds a bittersweet drama in its very loving embrace. There’s a special kind of electricity and theatricality to the juxtaposition of the drama (and its associated element of danger), and the sweetest comedy. Nestled within the charm of Cavalli’s opera is a genuineness of emotion; a searching for dignity from all of the characters. The royals struggle with love and lust, and how power fades in the throes of thrilling emotion. The world of military structure and honour seems to fall into chaos when beautiful women are within sight. Even those who serve the elite (the assistants, ladies-in-waiting and young sailors) can’t resist the allure of the heart (and the flesh!).
Cavalli has created a fascinating and theatrical world of magical battles and well-timed reconciliations, but in a more moving way, it is the battles and reconciliations of the heart that remind us that what we see and hear on stage is not a ‘far away adventure’, but rather an effective and accurate reflection of how we live, behave and love today.