Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting young singers.

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Giasone: Francesco Cavalli (1649)

Cavalli: Giasone

★★★½

(Opéra Royal de Versailles, 9 March 2018)

The dauntless Argonauts came to the shores of Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, but their heroism has been put on hold. For the last year they’ve been kept kicking their heels while their leader, Jason, diverts himself with a mysterious woman. He might be thoroughly enjoying himself but, as his fellow Argonaut Hercules tells him, it’s time to move on. But Jason’s romantic adventures prove harder to shake off than he anticipates, when it transpires that his secret lover is none other than Medea, Queen of Colchis. To make matters worse, his fiancee Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, has grown tired of waiting for him and is coming to fetch him home. Did I mention that Jason has also given each woman twin sons? Amidst the glitz and glitter of Versailles’s Opéra Royal, everything was about to hit the fan in a very, very Baroque fashion.

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Love and Death in Venice

Venetian Mask

(Les Talens Lyriques with Christophe Rousset, Wigmore Hall, 26 February 2018)

As the city shivered in winter’s grip on Monday evening, those of us at the Wigmore Hall could imagine ourselves among the campi and canals of 17th-century Venice. The brilliant French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were back for another London concert under the baton of their director Christophe Rousset. You may remember that I thoroughly enjoyed their recital with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Anders Dahlin at St John’s Smith Square last year. This concert was very similar in spirit, including three of the same pieces, but it rang the changes by swapping the tenors for two talented sopranos: the Dutch Judith van Wanroij and the Belgian Jodie Davos. Through the music of Rossi, Cavalli and maestro Monteverdi himself, they carried us deep into timeless tales of fateful passion, all-consuming love and grand anguish.

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Hipermestra: Francesco Cavalli (1658)

Cavalli: Hipermestra

★★★★½

(Glyndebourne, conducted by William Christie, 17 May 2017)

King Danao of Argos is troubled. His brother’s Egyptian troops have gathered on his border, forcing him to suggest a diplomatic match to avoid conflict. His fifty daughters will marry his brother’s fifty sons in a mass ceremony, cementing a peace treaty between the two nations. But Danao has given his daughters secret instructions. The Oracle at Delphi has warned him that one of his nephews will rob him of his life and kingdom. And so each of the fifty girls has been ordered to murder her husband on their wedding night. Each of them obeys. Except one: Hipermestra, who loves her new husband, her cousin Linceo, and urges him to escape. Her compassion will be rewarded by a tide of blood. In this thrilling premiere of an all-but-forgotten opera by Francesco Cavalli, Glyndebourne have updated an ancient story to a setting in the modern Middle East, giving it a punch that lingers long after the final curtain comes down.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Lucy Crowe

★★★★

(La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)

Calistos are like London buses: you wait for months and then two come along at once. Mere weeks after English Touring Opera’s vivacious production, David Bates and La Nuova Musica presented their own version of Cavalli’s tale of lust, disguise and confusion. Conceived as a semi-staged performance, to make maximum use of the Wigmore’s limited space, this Calisto boasted a cast to die for and delivered some great voices; yet it didn’t eclipse ETO quite as thoroughly as I’d expected.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Cavalli: Calisto

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 14 October 2016)

On Friday night it was time for the second opera in ETO’s autumn Baroque trilogy (the first was their Battle of Britain Xerxes). This time we were going back to the mid-17th century for Cavalli’s Calisto, which on the surface is an exuberant pantomime in song about gods behaving badly in the forests of Arcadia. Beneath the raunchiness, however, this opera has a surprisingly radical message. In a fascinating pre-show talk, the director and conductor Tim Nelson explored allusions to Galileo and the defeat of faith by reason, which – if this isn’t just the result of academic over-reading – would make the apparently frothy Calisto a subversive commentary on the biggest controversy of the day.

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Eliogabalo: Francesco Cavalli (1667)

Cavalli: Eliogabalo

★★★★

(Opéra de Paris at Palais Garnier, 25 September 2016)

Please forgive the recent silence. This last week was extremely busy which, on one hand, means there was no time to write new posts, but on the other means that you have a glut of them coming up. First off is the most glamorous and exciting event: my trip to the Paris Opéra to see their new production of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo. This was the result of a last-minute (and very expensive) fit of spontaneity, and luckily it turned out that Eliogabalo was just my cup of tea. Focused on a lascivious, unpredictable ruler with a penchant for stealing other people’s girlfriends, it sounds at first very much like Xerxes.

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Ercole Amante: Francesco Cavalli (1662)

Cavalli: Ercole Amante

★★★

(Concerto Köln and Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, with Ivor Bolton, 2009)

We haven’t had a properly weird opera in a while, have we? We’ve had imaginative and updated concepts, but nothing sufficiently mind-boggling to take its place in the Pantheon of Odd alongside the shark and the flying skeletal fish. But fear not, my friends. I have a new addition for those hallowed halls: Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole Amante, designed for the stage by David Alden. Sit back and marvel.

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Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★★

(Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2015)

Before Handel and before Bononcini there was Cavalli. This first take on the Xerxes story doesn’t enjoy anywhere near as much fame as its younger cousin, and to my knowledge has only been recorded once, in 1985, with the title role set for countertenor and sung by René Jacobs. It’s high time for another recording and, if Emmanuelle Haïm and her excellent cast could have their arms twisted to do it, we’d be in for a treat.

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Ormindo: Francesco Cavalli (1644)

Cavalli: Ormindo

★★★★★

(Royal Opera House at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February-March 2015)

In writing about Cavalli’s Ormindo, it’s hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I’m going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful debut in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli’s operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there’s nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe.

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