On Thursday night I attended the opening night of Opera Omnia's presentation of Francesco Cavalli's opera "Giasone," at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. Written to a libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini and premiered in 1649, "Giasone" was reputedly one of the most popular operas of the 17th century. For this production, Opera Omnia General Manager and Artistic Director Wesley Chinn used an English translation by Paul C. Echols and Martin Morell.
Le Poisson Rouge may seem like an odd setting for a Baroque opera. It is basically a night-club, serving food and drink during the performance. There is a relatively small performing stage, which for this occasion was adorned with a colorful, somewhat abstract backcloth, supplemented by a handful of moveable props. No sets to speak of. The costumes were an eclectic mix created by Carla Bellisio and Emily Rosenberg. The staging was by Crystal Manich. An ensemble of period performance specialists was led from the keyboard by Avi Stein, with Robert Mealy much in evidence as principal violinist and an emphasis on plucked instruments (baroque guitar and baroque harp) in the continuo.
In addition, the professional cast of singers included many names that would be familiar to opera goers and early music fans in the NY metro area, including in the leading roles Cherry Duke as Jason, Hai-Ting Chinn as Medea, Matthew Singer as Aegeus, Patrick Murray as Orestes, Katharine Dain as Hypsipyle, and Nathan Baer as Besso, with strong supporting performances from Mark Uhlemann (Hercules), Isai Jess Munoz (Demo the Hunchback), Sharin Apostolou (Alinda the maidservant). Cecilia Gault and Dante Vega Lamere, children, provided excellent performances as Apollo and Cupid. And in a category all of his own — and definitely a scene-stealer – Karim Sulayman was absolutely "fabulous" in the cross-dressing role of Delfa, Medea's "nurse."
I found this production to be quite entertaining, especially in the last two acts. (The first seemed overly long, and the cast seemed not to have fully settled into their roles yet.) The modern, idiomatic English text used for the performance may have made this more of a comic opera than the author of the original intended, but, as the notes point out, the intention back then was to provide a comic twist on a tale from mythology that would be recognizable to the audiences of the time. The English, however, made it seem more akin to something by Gilbert and Sullivan, especially with the miscommunications in the final act.
And, to Cavalli's music. True to the conventions of 17th century Italian opera, it was mainly recitative, with an occasional arioso and a handful of full-blown arias. One can lose patience at times with the extended recitatives, but the cast did their best to animate them and try to avoid the occasional awkward emphases in trying to adapt English text of musical lines conceived for Italian text. (The two languages do not quite scan in the same way.) Ultimately, I found it successful.
What was more important was that cast, crew, and musicians entered into this project with lots of enthusiasm, and it really showed. They clearly enjoyed working together. The instrumentalists were superb throughout, most of the singing was on a very high level, and one could find much to enjoy. I hope that Opera Omnia finds the resources to present more operas from their favored period. (Unfortunately, I missed their first production of several years ago of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea…)