Francesco Cavalli: Hipermestra
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 21 May 2017
For somebody who believes an oracle that he will be murdered by one of his nephews, it was particularly unfortunate that Danao, King of Argos, had 50 of them, the sons of his brother Egitto, King of Egypt. As it happened, Danao had 50 daughters, so married them all off to his nephews with the instruction that they must all murder their husbands on their wedding night. With one exception, Danao’s plan worked, the exception being his daughter Hipermestra and her new husband Linceo, who had fallen for each other. The subsequent plot of Cavalli’s 1658 opera is based on the complex series of events that occurred after the 50 potential murderous nephews were now reduced to a more manageable one.
Cavalli wrote Hipermestra in the form of a festa teatrale, using a libretto by Moniglia. It was first performed in Florence’s Teatro degli Immobili in June 1658 on the occasion of the birth of a son to King Philip of Spain. It remained unheard from 1680 and 2006. This was its first UK performance. It is probably only known to musicians, if at all, through the 1658 etchings of the original staging (by Silvio degli Alli, after designs by Ferdinando Tacca) now in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (pictured below). It was appropriate that it was at Glyndebourne, who launched the Cavalli revival in Britain around 50 years ago with their stagings of L’Ormindo and La Calisto, albeit in a rather different musical style to today’s more accurate realisations. As well as the premiere of the opera, this was the opening night of Glyndebourne’s 2017 Festival.
Before the opera started, several of the just married couples were to be seen wandering in the Glyndebourne grounds, with attendant photographers. It says something for the Glyndebourne audience that I overheard several people wondering why Glyndebourne would allow a wedding at the same time as an opera! I hope things clicked into place for them at curtain up when the couples processed across the stage, bowing to a potentate in a side gallery. It was clear that the sumptuous setting was not ancient Greece or Egypt, but in a far more recent oil-rich Middle Eastern Islamic state. The small orchestra (two violins and array of continuo instruments) were kitted out in white fezzes and robes and sat in what looked like an empty hammam bath, covered in Islamic patterned tiles a few steps down from the stage, which extended well beyond the proscenium into the auditorium. The musicians were not only visible to all, but were frequently part of the action, stepping up on to the stage, or with singers coming down to the ‘pit’. In the second part that changed clothes to refugee charity shop chic.
Operatic style from of this important period in musical history is still not widely known, so it might have been something of a shock to the Glyndebourne audience. Most of the singing is in the form of more-or-less continuous recitativo (or spoken speech), only occasionally morphing into arioso. The lack of big tunes and da capo arias is more than made up for by the focus on the text, and the inflection of the melodic line to suit the word underlay. The key musical focus is on the instrumental accompaniment to the singing, provided here by eight members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed in a very subdued fashion from one of the two harpsichords by the usually flamboyant William Christie. He also proved to be a very effective continuo player, providing just the right support for the singers with none of the rather irritating flourishes and twinkles that we heard from the second, unnamed, harpsichordist, who I guess was a member of the Glyndebourne musical staff. Theorbo and lute player, Elizabeth Kenny was key to the rest of the continuo group, frequently being left by Christie to lead the group. Kati Debretzeni and Huw Daniel, the two violinists, had rather less to do that the continuo group, but made vital contributions to the musical texture, including several appearances on stage and subsidiary acting roles, including crouching in the pit during the battle scenes.
It needed attention to the surtitled text to discover the complexities of the plot – of which there were many. A cartoon version of the story, and a taster of the music, can be seen in this video –
The opera is in three Acts, but the first two were combined, making for an excessively long first half of more than two hours. The change of set for the third act must have been complex, but there really should have been a break at least, if not the full 90 minute dinner break, between the first two acts. As is often the case at Glyndebourne, it will be the sets that remain in the memory for many. Director Graham Vick with Stuart Nunn designer, and Giuseppe Di Iorio lighting designer conjured up an extraordinary array of scene changes, sometimes with several alternative revolving on stage at the same time, building to a pyrotechnic climax at the end of the first half. Returning after the interval was like walking into a life-size version of the Newsnight, with the all-too-familiar scene of Middle Eastern devastation. References to present day Daesh/ISIL/ISIS atrocities were littered through the evening, including Hipermesta digging her own grave in the sand while guards causally collection rocks with which to smash her head. She later appeared kneeling and hooded before a knife-wielding soldier, while in the background people were thrown from buildings to their death – or not, as it turned out, in a spectacular but brief scene that a blink would have missed.
The singing, as expected, was top-notch, with the Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth as Hipermestra and countertenor Raffaele Pe as Linceo both excelling at singing and acting. Renato Dolcini took the role of King Danao while Benjamin Hulett was General Arbante. Elisa was sung by Ana Quintans. Mark Wilde’s grotesquely over-the-top pantomime dame take on the nurse Berenice came complete with the now mandatory drag-act full beard. One of his many comic turns involved molesting William Christie (who always likes to get involved) in the pit, stealing his fez and polishing his head. The music was edited by William Christie and the new edition will be made available to other companies after the premiere. It runs until 8 July. It is worth mortgaging your Granny to see it.
The production photos below are by Tristram Kenton.