There is nothing quite like a Cavalli opera at Glyndebourne, and equally nothing quite like any baroque opera in this house under the direction of William Christie – those young enough to have no memory of La Calisto (1970) in the first case, or who did not make it to The Fairy Queen in 2009 in the second, will just have to take our word for it and come along to this first-ever UK performance of Hipermestra to see for themselves. Graham Vick, whose direction makes for another unique feature of this occasion, characterizes Cavalli’s operas as “…musically taut, extraordinarily alive and ideal for this theatre” and that, despite the occasional longeurs of the first half, is exactly what we find.
Christie and Vick take as their basic template, the fact that, as the conductor says, “The soloist on stage is the most important element in (Cavalli’s) musical world” and they emphasize this with a tiny orchestra whose players are not only costumed in the character of the piece but intimately involved in its action – this is how to show the interrelationship between words, music, character and action, and what a far cry it is from the fatuous inclusion of players and dancers in so many productions. So seamless is the interaction and so faithful is the adherence to the concept of what Vick describes as “sung plays” in terms of Cavalli’s art that it seems almost wrong to single out individuals, but so fine a cast deserves praise.
Glyndebourne has chosen mostly young, emergent singers for this work which is so much engaged with the near-impossible decisions made by young women and forced upon them by warring men, and in Emőke Baráth’s heroine and Ana Quintans’ Elisa we heard two very fine sopranos whose voices had just enough contrast. Baráth has been making her name in oratorio and concert, and this Glyndebourne debut found her a little nervous at the outset, but growing in strength as her lovely, rounded tone made itself heard. Ana Quintans has more stage experience and it showed in her outstandingly confident presentation of Elisa. Both singers created much sympathy for their dilemmas – after all, it isn’t often that a bride is asked to murder her groom on their wedding night, or that a woman is rejected and yet becomes the confidante of the loved one.
Mark Wilde’s Berenice was the audience favourite of course, his delivery just the right side of outrageousness, and never disguising the fact that this is a very fine tenor voice. Raffaele Pe’s very sweet countertenor made for an intriguing match with the conficted character of Linceo, and Renato Dolcini was very convincing as the ‘beloved tyrant’ Danao. Benjamin Hulett added yet another role to his impressive Glyndebourne list as Arbante, and there was strong support from Anthony Gregory as Vafrino, David Webb as Arsace and Alessandro Fisher as Delmiro and Alindo.
William Christie’s tiny orchestra, set not in the pit but stage front and often wandering with apparently casual ease right into the action, was as always the epitome of what this kind of music needs, and in this kind of house. Devotedly led by Kati Debretzeni and with especially fine contributions from Joy Smith (Harp) and Huw Daniel (Violin) this was orchestral accompaniment which defies that term, being rather a seamless part of the narrative.
Graham Vick’s production is typical of his work in that it is rooted in historical accuracy – Moniglia’s libretto of 1658 shows a battle scene which has obviously influenced Stuart Nunn’s impressive set design – yet able to resonate with a modern audience without too much recourse to the sort of things which have now become cliché. One should not give too much away here since it is part of the production’s delights that there are constant surprises, but suffice to say that the world of oil-rich opulence, as reflected in both East and West, figures very vividly, that the scenes of palace life and battle-torn city are finely suggested and evoked with the aid of Giuseppe di lorio’s elegant lighting design, and that there is a deus ex machina which Tosca could have done with in her final moments.
There are few ‘show-stopper’ arias in this work, mainly because Cavalli’s sound world is not made up of crisis resolved and reflected upon in the same way as that of, say, Handel, and the ‘two hours’ traffic’ of the first half is perhaps a little testing for some. However, the staging, singing and playing are so finely bound together that one is hardly aware that this is a work which has not been previously staged here. We just wished that Berenice, too, could have been borne aloft by what Vick describes as that ‘Moment of grace…’ but that’s almost to say too much: go and see for yourself!