Saturday, October 3, 2015

Opera (4)

Francesco Cavalli: L'Ormindo (Jérôme Correas)

The history of opera begins in 1600, with performances of two operas on the same subject: Euridice, by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini respectively. These operas and those which were composed in the first 35 years of the 17th century were performed at various courts, in Florence, Mantua and Rome. The first public theatre, San Cassiano, opened in Venice in 1637 with a performance of Andromeda by Benedetto Ferrari. Soon opera became big business. Here Monteverdi performed Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643). In Venice Francesco Cavalli performed nearly 30 operas; the first was Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo which premiered in January 1639 in the San Cassiano theatre.

Two of his next operas have become quite well-known: Didone (1641) and Egisto (1643). In 1644 L'Ormindo was performed; it was one of the Cavalli operas which was revived in the 1960s under the direction of Raymond Leppard, albeit in an modern arrangement. The recording under the direction of Jérôme Correas seems to be the first; I haven't found any other performance in the various databases which are available on the internet.

The plot is set in Fez, in the ancient kingdom of Mauretania in northern Africa. However, as Barbara Nestola points out in her liner-notes, "[this] far-off and exotic setting displays a number of points in common with the Serenissima [Venice] (...). An obvious analogy can be found in the Che città aria (Act 2, Scene 6), in which Nerillo the page describes, in trepidation and wonderment, the whirl of persons and situations that his passing inexplicably arouses. Venice is not only sung of and celebrated in opera; it is also described with great realism." The opera opens with a prologue in which Harmony (L'Armonia) expresses her admiration for the city and especially its theatres. "Now, by your leave O glorious city, thou that hast walls of crystal in which to behold thy beauty, which all the universe does admire, I come to throng once more thy theatres with the glorious reign of grace and love".

The libretto was written by Giovanni Faustini and is divided into three acts. "The foreign princes, Amida and Ormindo, who are assisting in the defense of Mauretania, are both in love with Erisbe who is unhappily married to Hariadeno, Mauretania's elderly king. The princes agree to remain friends while they test her love. During the course of the opera, there is much plotting by Amore, Princess Sicle (Amida's abandoned lover) and Erice (Sicle's nurse) to interfere with the contest. Erice stages a séance to communicate with the 'dead' Sicle who reproaches Amida for his inconstancy which had driven her to suicide. Amida, overcome with remorse, realizes that he still loves Princess Sicle and is overjoyed when it is revealed that she is actually alive and not a ghost. Meanwhile, Erisbe and Ormindo decide to elope to Tunis, where Ormindo must defend his homeland from attack. When King Hariadeno discovers their adultery, he orders his captain, Osmano, to have them poisoned. However, Osmano substitutes a sleeping potion for the poison at the urging of Mirinda (Erisbe's confidante) who has promised to marry him if he spares the lovers. All ends more or less happily when the King learns that Ormindo is actually his son from a youthful liaison. He forgives everyone and cedes his kingdom to Ormindo." (Wikipedia).

Cavalli has set the libretto in form of recitatives, ariosos and arias. These are mostly not clearly split but rather follow each other without interruption. Sometimes there is a longer episode which is set as a unity, especially the prison scene in the third act. The role of the instruments is limited: they now and then play a sinfonia, and sometimes support a singer in an aria. The instruments are not specified, but it is assumed that the two treble parts were intended for violins. There is also no indication in regard to the number of instruments involved. Some conductors, such as René Jacobs, like to use a battery of wind and strings and a large basso continuo section in Cavalli operas. Correas has confined himself to the minimum: two violins, two viole da gamba, violone, harp, theorbo or guitar and harpsichord or organ. This recording shows that this is enough to achieve a satisfying result. This way the vocal parts and the text are in the centre as they should.

Correas has permitted himself the luxury of allocating every role to a different singer. Sandrine Piau, for instance, only sings the role of Harmony in the Prologue, which lasts a little over six minutes. Martín Oro gives a differentiated account of the title role which is not as dominant as one may expect; several other roles are just as important. Stylistically his singing lacks consistency: at some moments he is fine, but there are also episodes where his singing is marred by vibrato, albeit not very wide. The role of Hariadeno is sung by Jacques Bona. I don't particularly like his voice, but his character comes off well, especially in the scene where he learns that Ormindo whom he has just sentenced to death through poisoning is his son. I have always considered Howard Crook a specialist in French baroque music; I have heard some very fine performances by him in that kind of repertoire. I find him far less convincing in Italian music - or German music, for that matter - and that is confirmed here. He is a little bland in his account of the role of Amida. When he sings forte his voice starts to flutter. The comical role of Nerillo is sung by Dominique Visse - who else? He seems to like this kind of roles, and that shows. His command of coloratura and the sophisticated ornamentation of the seconda prattica is admirable, and so is his ability to colour his voice according to the text and its affetti. The most impressive contributions come from the sopranos. Karine Deshayes sings the relatively small role of Mirinda nicely, but especially Stéphanie Révidat as Erisbe and Magali Léger as Sicle are very impressive. The latter role is the most versatile, and that is perfectly conveyed by Ms Léger. Both ladies have very beautiful voices and show a full command of the technical and stylistic means a performance of this repertoire requires.

As this seems to be the first recording of L'Ormindo there is no competition. But even if there was, this recording would probably end up on top, despite some weaknesses in the vocal department as I have indicated above. However, it has a serious shortcoming: it is not complete. Several scenes have been cut entirely, and I suspect that the scenes which have been recorded are not always complete. Even parts of the text which is printed in the booklet are omitted; that should have been marked, for instance through brackets, but it is not. As a result it is not always easy to follow the proceedings; while listening and reading I lost track several times. The libretto should also have been edited more carefully as it includes several errors. Cuts are common practice in live performances. That is pretty annoying, but I really can't see any reason why a studio recording should be incomplete. In my view this is a major shortcoming, especially as there is no alternative recording available.

Let us hope that some day a complete recording of L'Ormindo will be released. In the meantime this production gives at least a good idea of the character and qualities of this Cavalli opera.

Francesco Cavalli, L'Ormindo Karine Deshayes (Mirinda), Mahali Léger (Sicle), Sandrine Piau (L'Armonia), Stéphanie Révidat (Erisbe), soprano; Martín Oro (Ormindo), Dominique Visse (Nerillo), alto; Howard Crook (Amida), Jean-François Lombard (Erice), tenor; Benoît Arnould (Osmano), Jacques Bona (Hariadeno), baritone
Les Paladins/Jérôme Correas
Recorded June 2006 at Temple St Marcel, Paris
Pan Classics PC 10330 (2 CDs; 2.11'10"; © 2015)