Jason, English Touring Opera, ETO, Britten Theatre, RCM, October 2013Posted on 5 October 2013
This Cavalli opera, Giasone in Italian, was followed a couple of years later by La Calisto, which the Royal Opera produced for the first time in autumn 2008. Both feature characters from classical mythology engaging in emotional and sexual liaisons, which somehow manage to end in harmony after complications and frustrations attendant on the rambunctious vigour of the main character.
According to musicologist Ellen Rosand, who also writes in the programme, Jason was the most frequently performed opera of the seventeenth century, after its debut in Venice during carnival season of 1648/49. Indeed the way to approach this work is in a carnival spirit of light-hearted seventeenth century drama, where caution has been thrown to the winds and sexual desire is the driving force.
Jason himself is a philanderer who decides to marry Medea despite already having a wife, Isifile and two children. Medea’s nurse, Delfa sings about couples trying it out before marriage, suggesting that passion is the real reason for the union, and the main losers are Isifile and Medea’s infatuated pursuer Egeus. Isifile becomes suicidal, but in the improbably happy ending she retains Jason, and Egeus gets Medea. Hugely popular with seventeenth century audiences, the three acts and a prologue were converted into a shorter two-act English version by Ronald Eyre, first shown at the Buxton festival in 1984. Some of the clever word play in the original has been mirrored by English word play, and the production by Ted Huffman uses some clever stage trickery, with Medea opening a book of spells that gushes fire, and Cupid turning water into wine and back into water.
Among other charms were the music played on period instruments by the Old Street Band, conducted by Joseph McHardy, and superb diction from the singers, rendering surtitles superfluous. Hannah Pedley as Medea was particularly strong in this respect, with her seductive mezzo-soprano and fabulous diction, and counter-tenor Clint van der Linde was a strong Jason with a robust knock-about manner. Lovely plaintive singing by Catrine Kirkman as Isifile in Act II, after Jason has told her he no longer loves her, and a fine performance by Andrew Slater as the honest Hercules, one of Jason’s men, who throws the wrong woman into the sea. Entertainment is part and parcel of this musical drama, complete with a witty hunchback named Demus, very well sung by tenor Peter Aisher, who also sang the counter-tenor roles of Apollo and Cupid. More counter-tenor singing from Michal Czerniawski as Medea’s nurse Delfa, and some rumbling bass notes from Piotr Lempa as the intentionally clownish Orestes, confidant to Isifile.
Congratulations to the ETO for including this Cavalli opera in their baroque season, along with Coronation of Poppea by Cavalli’s teacher Monteverdi, and Agrippina by Handel.
Performances of Jason continue at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Oct 5 and 10; Snape Maltings, Oct 17; Malvern Theatres, Oct 26; Theatre Royal Bath, Oct 29; Harrogate Theatre, Oct 31; Gala Theatre, Durham, Nov 5; Cambridge Arts Theatre, Nov 13; and Exeter Northcott, Nov 20. For details click here.