Il Giasone, "Jason", was first staged in January 1649 when Cavalli (considered a successor to Monteverdi and also working in Venice) was at the height of his powers and successes – before his rather sour spell in France. Music quite different from that of Monteverdi's by virtue of its immediacy, continual, uninterrupted development, Cavalli's Il Giasone has more of theatricality and explicit humanity than set pieces based on basso continuo, which were the norm for (Venetian) audiences at the time. Such dramatic power resonated with audiences: the opera was very successful with repeat performances following a successful première. Cavalli's famed craft of keeping up with prevailing trends, and also leading/creating them was in evidence with Il Giasone too.
Cavalli had to please patrons, audience and knowledgeable musicians and at the same time balance spectacle with what was practical and what would best convey the seriousness of the tragedy of Medea and Jason without grotesque or spurious excursions into the macabre. It was conductor Federico Maria Sardelli's challenge, too, to arrive at an idiom that was both dramatic and serious without being histrionic. His singers exude force and identify completely with their parts and the extended archetypal threads which they also represent.Sardelli has succeeded well. Clear articulation and gentle yet satisfying projection of these stark and compelling roles is the happy result. This is a set to treasure.
The recording appears to have been made from at least one live performance of the opera. One's overall impression is of spontaneity and enjoyment. There seems to have been a loosening of conventions, not quite so far as an abandonment, but certainly in the way in which the music is explored. So here is an experience which is as entertaining as it is stimulating. In other words, the historical place for Il Giasone is not given undue importance at the expense of lively and considered music making in its own right. Surely that's how it would have been perceived by contemporary audiences.
As well as conducting and playing the soprano recorder, Sardelli was responsible for the realization of the work – indeed for the actual composition of several orchestral pieces, which presumably have not survived from Cavalli's manuscript. In such a sense, this Il Giasone is not completely authentic or historically impeccable. But it's more than enough. Enough to indicate the sort of performance contemporary audiences would have thrilled to. And enough to provide an enjoyable and genuine evening of Baroque opera where the Jason legend, the concerns, failures and horror of the story have their effect on us in all the right ways. Variety, series of climaxes, pathos, sensitivity as well as certainty are all characteristics that Sardelli understands and privileges in this performance and recording.
None of this is to say that Sardelli has created a "new" work; or distorted Cavalli's intentions in any way. Indeed, just as prominent as the delight they have taken in bringing the score to life as vividly as they have is a respect for the composer's idiom, his use of color, psychological insight; and the fitting of plot to musical ideas. Given the enormity of the tragic hue of the three-act story, such characters as the stuttering hunchback, Demo (Filippo Adami, tenor), might have presented a problem: how real to make them, how far caricatures, how freakish. Again, Sardelli and his performers have succeeded by taking, really, Cavalli's wonderful melodic and architectural gifts at face value. And letting them speak for themselves without offering undue weight to the musical conventions which, although so important in Baroque opera, were changing rapidly anyway. Much of this vibrancy in those developments simply shines through the entire production.
The singing of the principals, while enthusiastic and full of expression, is not always of the highest quality… Katarina Bradic's Medea in "Se dardo pungente" [CD.1 tr.6], for instance, is decidedly wobbly and a little flat. Similarly, there is a harsh edge to tenor Filippo Adami's Demo. This is not typical: others who shine are soprano Robin Johannsen's Isifile and tenor Emilio Pons (Egeo/Sole) as well as countertenor, Christophe Dumaux's, Giasone itself, which is grave yet immediate. To be charitable, this spread of accomplishment can be seen to add realism to the sense of performance. But a slightly more secure delivery would have been just as welcome. To listen to Johannsen's "Oreste ancor non giunge" [CD.2 tr.1] and baritone Andrew Ashwin's (Ercole) "Io pur ti tocco" [CD.2 tr.2] is also to appreciate that this is a production with a wide range of sentiments for here is pathos and sadness of the simplest and so most penetrating kind… a long way from pastiche and highly affecting.
The acoustic (Vlaamse Opera's own hall in May 2010) is close and clean. It allows the singers and players to make full impact throughout. The booklet contains basic details and a synopsis, though regrettably lacks the full libretto. Since this is the only available version of the opera (it's also on DVD - Catalog: 33663), to have had the full text would have been useful. Still, Cavalli's music is beautiful, interesting and important enough for lovers of early opera to be grateful for this set with its few flaws. Sardelli's is a persuasive and characterful conception that makes for an enjoyable and stimulating three plus hours' listening.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.