Friday 11 October 2013

English Touring Opera - Jason

Hannah Pedley in Jason, English Touring Opera - Photography: Richard Hubert Smith
Hannah Pedley in Jason,
Photography: Richard Hubert Smith
Cavalli's Jason (Giasone) was written for Venice in 1649 and was one of this prolific composer's most popular operas. The plot has very little to do with classical myth and revolves around mistaken and thwarted love in aristocrats combined with that very Venetian speciality, the comic servant (there are three in Jason). For their performance of the opera as part of their Venetian Baroque season at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre (seen October 10 2013), English Touring Opera chose to perform Richard Eyre's version of the opera created for the 1984 Buxton Festival. Eyre translated the piece into elegant English, cut it and, to a certain extent re-shaped it to create a fluid, fluent and relatively short opera (under two hours of music).

Ted Huffmann directed, in designs by Samal Blak, with a cast including Clint van der Linde, Hanna Pedley, Catrine Kirkman, Andrew Slater, Peter Aisher (replacing an ailing Stuart Haycock), Michal Czerniaswki, John-Colyn Gyeantey and Piotr Lempa. Joseph McHardy conducted with the Old Street Band in the pit.

Blak's fixed set consisted of an elegant 18th century style hallway with stairs and landing providing plenty of entrances and exits that the opera needs. (For the second act, set on the shores of Lemnos, the set was damaged, distressed and strewn with leaves.) Whilst Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea mixes serious and comic elements, Cavalli's opera brings in elements of farce as well as a novelty act, a stuttering servant. So Blak's set needed its varied means of egress (at one point in act two, Medea was thrown out through a hole in the pannelling). Blak's costumes mixed eras and my biggest complaint was that it wasn't clear who these people were. King Egeus (John-Colyn Gyeantey) for instance spent the entire opera wearing a leisure suit (aka a track suit) and his servant Demus (Peter Aisher) looked more like a tramp. Jason (Clint van der Linde) seemed to be something of a James Bond-like figure in that he did everything (getting married, making love and going to war) in a three piece suit, albeit worn with knee-boots and a sword.

Jason, English Touring Opera - Photography: Richard Hubert Smith
Jason, act one  - Photography: Richard Hubert Smith
The plots starts with the marriage of Jason (Clint van der Linde) and Medea (Hannah Pedley), then we gradually find out that Jason is already married to Isiphile (Catrine Kirkman) whom he has left behind on Lemnos whilst he goes to get the gold fleece with Hercules (Andrew Slater) and their band (not seen in the opera). Medea also has a previous lover, King Egeus (John-Colyn Gyeantey), who still moons after her.

The opera is defined by two contrasts - between Apollo(Peter Aisher) who introduces the celebratory act one and Cupid (Michal Czerniawski) who is furious at Jason's behaviour and at the opening of act two conjures a storm to ensure that Jason ends up back on Lemnos to return to Isiphile. The other contrast is between Medea and Isiphile. Act one is devoted to Medea, Isiphile does not appear and the act concludes with Medea's magic conjuration to enable Jason to gain the fleece. Act two belongs to Isiphile (Catrine Kirkman), it is she who opens it and whose lamenting behaviour is the defining theme of this act.

In order to articulate the super-natural elements Huffmann had brought in David Herrezuela as an artistic collaborator for illusion, so that at the end of act one during Medea's conjuration, Pedley did bring about some magic. There was, however, a hiccup in the prologue when Peter Aisher as Apollo conjured fire and set fire to his foot, causing the opera to come to a halt. With great aplomb, Aisher continued once the fire had been put out.

Hannah Pedley was a lovely Medea, singing with beautifully fluid facility and elegant focused tone. She was well matched by Clint Van der Linde's Jason, who was clearly more lover than action man. Van der Linde's tone was soft grained and beautiful, if covered, rather than the bravura action man. The two spend a great deal of act one cooing over each other, which they did finely.

By contrast Gyeantey's Egeus was rather a disheveled, edgy figure. Gyeantey's tone was rather high tension when he put his voice under pressure, but he also contributed some finely sung moments. We only meet Isiphile (Catrine Kirkman) in act two, she is in devastated shape and Kirkman was very moving in Isiphile's laments.

Jason does not want Isiphile back and in act two he plots to kill her by giving Hercules (Andrew Slater) slightly cryptic orders. Not the brightest button in the box, Hercules throws the wrong woman (Medea) into the sea. The resulting confusions bring the opera to an ultimately happy end.

As a counterpoint to this were the servants. Medea's servant Delfa (Michal Czerniawski) was that standard Venetian baroque trope, the elderly matron played by a man and still desperate for sex. Egeus's servant Demus (Peter Aisher) was the stutterer. And Isiphile's servant Orestes (Piotr Lempa) was sent to spy on Medea and Jason. All three gave fine performances, but none was particularly funny. You rather felt that these scenes ought to be played out something closer to Frankie Howerd in Up Pompei. Huffman's direction made them a little too stately and studied. All three had a nice turn of phrase and I felt could have been funnier if allowed to be faster paced. Lempa in particular had a nicely dead-pan delivery, whilst Aisher did well with his character's profoundly annoying stutter (and the English translation was beautifully creative here).

The whole performance was creditably and fluidly performed. There was a clarity to Huffman's direction which meant that we knew which character was which, and the singers all contributed strongly characterised performances.

In the pit the Old Street Band, conducted by Joseph McHardy, made a nicely mellifluous contribution with a significant number of continuo instruments (two theorbos, harp and harpsichord).

This was my third opera in ETO's Venetian baroque season and one of the great delights is the way they still function as a repertory company, with most singers performing multiple roles in the season. Michal Czerniawski being Ottone in Coronation of Poppea and appearing in drag as Delfa in Jason. 

But I have to confess that the performance did not convince me that Cavalli's opera was on the same level those of Handel and Monteverdi which are part of the same Venetian Baroque season. That said, it was lovely to make the acquaintance of this opera again and I had a finely entertaining evening in the theatre.

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