Plucky Opera Omnia gives Cavalli’s “Giasone” lively and irreverent advocacy
There was a line stretching all the way down the block Thursday night at the opening of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York’s West Village. With their Birkenstock sandals, cargo shorts and Trader Joe’s shopping totes the people waiting to pass through the doors under a large metal fish skeleton didn’t look like your average opera goers. Then again, you don’t get the back of your hand stamped when you enter the Met.
It was the second production by the plucky Opera Omnia, a company dedicated to reviving seventeenth-century Italian opera in English translation after a critically lauded and sold-out Incoronazione di Poppea in 2008. That production, too, was presented inside the historic Village Gate nightclub remodeled into a genre-bending performing arts venue. Despite its acoustic limitations, the club setting played a vital part in the success of this intimate and joyful performance. Musically luscious, raucously funny, and irreverent in all the right places, this production was a reminder of why Giasone was the most successful opera of its time.
The opera was first performed in Venice during the Carnival season of 1649 and features a libretto by Ciacinto Andrea Cicognini ripe with sexual innuendo and political satire. On the surface, it’s a retelling of the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, but stripped of the bloodshed and outfitted with a lieto fine, a Hollywood Ending. Yes, Jason abandons Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos, with whom he has sired twins, in pursuit of the Golden Fleece and Medea, the sorceress-queen of Colchis, who has herself grown tired of her lover Aegeus, King of Athens. And true, there are attempts to murder the one or the other. But those plans backfire, and in the end the original couples are reunited, their scheming servants and soldiers exhausted but happy.
As in Monteverdi’s Poppea, the cynical bent of the libretto is undermined by the music, which grants the characters moments of tenderness, dignity and yearning even while their actions remain, for the most part, in the realm of caricature. In a remarkably fluid score, slapstick recitative gives way to deeply felt love duets, martial posturing to heart-wrenching laments. Sometimes, it is merely a sweet phrase in the violins that softens a cynical one-liner.
The production was well served by the sensitive edition by the late Paul Echols, which streamlined the opera from four hours to three. A seven-member ensemble on period instruments, led by Avi Stein and featuring the terrific Robert Mealy on baroque violin, created an impressive palette of colors and textures.
The voices fared somewhat less well. The male singers, in particular, seemed to rattle the rafters whenever they cranked up the power. Basses Nathan Baer, as the perpetually stoned Argonaut Besso, and Patrick Murray, as Hypsipyles’ secret agent Orestes, often found themselves constricted by the cabaret acoustics. Not so tenor Isai Jess Munoz as the hunchbacked Demo, whose artful stutter proved a literal show-stopper at every appearance, nor Karim Sulayman who, in drag, played the role of Delfa, Medea’s nurse, smoothly slipping from tenor to haute-contre territory and back. Matthew Singer stood out as Aegeus, who, from his buffoonish beginnings, grows in dignity as the opera progresses. His lament in Act III, which foreshadows Handel in its economy of phrasing and expressive intensity, was one of the musical highlights of the evening.
Jason was sung by Cherry Duke, whose mezzo has the right amount of dark inflections to lend credibility to her impersonation of the self-absorbed, womanizing Jason. In duets her voice was a perfect foil for the much brighter and ultra-precise soprano of Hai-Ting Chinn as the minx-like Medea. A gifted comic actress, Chinn was as flexible as she was fearless. A memorable entrance saw her singing the line “Leave me not in suspense” while slung, face down, over Aegeus’ shoulder.
Sharin Apostolou was radiant as Alinda, the bossy servant of the queen of Lemnos; Katharine Dain sang and acted a richly nuanced Hypsipyle. Taking her cue from the line “Yes, I’m desperate, but I’m still a queen,” she brought a quiet sense of dignity to the proceedings, and literally brought Jason to his knees with her final lament.
All seemed at ease in the baroque idiom, with ornamentations employed judiciously, and sparingly. Director Crystal Manich showed an uncanny ability to mine the music for comic effect and her decision to stage the opera in the style of commedia dell’arte street theater, with copious winks in the direction of Village audiences, worked well. Purists might have been shocked when the cast, prodded by Demo’s attempts to get over the first syllable of the word “body,” erupted in a vaudeville rendition of “My Bonnie lies over the Ocean.” But then purists were never Cavalli’s intended audience and anyway, in a Village basement on a Thursday night, they were in mercifully short supply.
Giasone will be performed at (Le) Poisson Rouge at 7 p.m. September 3, 6 and 7. operaomnia.org; 212-505-FISH.