Plucky Opera Omnia gives Cavalli’s “Giasone” lively and irreverent advocacy

September 02, 2011
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Hai-Ting Chinn as Medea in Opera Omnia's production of Cavalli's "Giasone."

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.; 212-505-FISH.

4 Responses to “Plucky Opera Omnia gives Cavalli’s “Giasone” lively and irreverent advocacy”

  1. Posted Sep 03, 2011 at 11:10 am by The Unrepentant Pelleastrian


    “A company dedicated to reviving seventeenth-century Italian opera in English translation”

    Not that you would ever find me in one of these places but why this continued ‘dumbing down’ of not presenting operas in original language?

    What is so difficult about sitting down with an opera recording beforehand?

    “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.”

    Vaudeville rendition?

    Cringeworthy yes, but not especially shocking from our increasingly silly opera companies.

  2. Posted Sep 04, 2011 at 8:29 pm by Avi Stein

    The wonder of the translation used in this particular performance is not just how well it works, but how faithful it is to the original, both in spirit and in letter. While the use of “My bonny….” is new to this production, the gag is original. Cavalli chose a completely arbitrary pop tune for its comic effect.
    Perhaps the previous writer should go back to his idolized recording, or actually do his own homework and go through the manuscripts to find the quote I have in mind… and if he cares so much about the Italian, he can add the appropriate hand gestures

  3. Posted Sep 05, 2011 at 10:44 am by Michael

    I’m a huge fan of opera in the original language. Something is always ‘lost in translation’.

    That said, Opera Omnia’s delicious production was a fine example of what can be gained: an immediate connection with an audience that understands every word. (Indeed, the diction was so uniformly clear that one could understood EVERY word).

    I’m not sure that I understand how opera in translation is ‘dumbing down’ or how a few hours with a CD beforehand is going to make the listener fluent in Italian. Giasone was written for an audience of (mainly) Italian speakers and is dependent (especially in its comic episodes) on an immediate connection with the language.

    If you’re looking for a museum piece, by all means stay home and listen to the CD, but you’ll be missing a wonderful, entertaining evening.

  4. Posted Sep 05, 2011 at 2:59 pm by Wesley Chinn

    Unrepentant Pelleastrian, a few questions for you.

    1. Would you expect that if we were mounting a Chekov play that we should do it in the original language (or if we were doing Shakespeare in Germany, that we should perform it in English)?

    2. What exactly is the difference?

    Sure, there are plenty of answers to No. 2, but I propose that in the case of Cavalli, the composer’s intent was very clearly that the audience directly absorb and understand the action, not in an “I did my homework and have a good idea of what’s going on right now” way, but in an “I experience an every-day human connection between myself and the singer because there’s direct communication going on between us in this moment in a language we both speak natively” sort of way. There’s a real, and crucial, difference between these two things; you may like to be undistracted and just listen to vocal technique, but I think that being able to enjoy the drama directly was very much the composer’s intent.

    I further propose that Cavalli and the rest of his Venetian cohort were clearly attempting to create middlebrow entertainment; like Shakespeare, they aimed to create something that could be enjoyed on many different levels depending on the listener. While “My Bonny” was our interpolation, a careful study of the score (have you done one?) would reveal that at that moment in the original Cavalli suddenly inserts a pop song of the day that starts on the syllables that Demo is stuttering. To the audience of the day, this was a funny joke, but to today’s audience, it’s just another tune that sounds a lot like many of the other tunes in the opera (albeit perhaps slightly more rustic), so we elected to make the joke clear to everyone.

    You presumably like the fact that classical music often requires a certain degree of homework to appreciate properly. You’re entitled to that opinion, and there is certainly a place in this world for art that requires careful study to appreciate. I contend, however, that insisting on maintaining this barrier to entry is part of what has left classical music performance in such dire straights, and that Cavalli would be shocked to see his work treated with such reverence.

    Me, I like my opera sometimes to just be fun.