Tag Archives: Benjamin Hulett

Heavy Hipermestra

21 May

It’s quite difficult to judge an audience’s reaction to an opera sometimes.  I could have sworn that a substantial part of the audience for the first night of Glyndebourne’s new production of Cavalli’s Hipermestra on 20 May were deeply bored and, like the man sitting next to me, falling asleep and desperately waiting for the thing to end.  At the interval, people was using words like “interesting” and “different” suggesting at least an ambivalence about it.  Yet at the end, the applause seemed warm and enthusiastic.  Make no mistake though, this is not a show for the faint hearted or for operatic novices.

From what I can gather, this seems to have been about the third performance of the piece ever and the first since 1680.  Unlike many of Cavalli’s operas it was commissioned and first performed at an aristocratic wedding with lavish sets and dances and lasted over five hours.  I don’t know whether this was with or without intervals.   William Christie had cut out a lot of paraphernalia (include the gods and goddesses at the opening and had got it down to slightly less than three hours of music.

It has rather a good plot.  King Danao has 50 daughters.  His brother, Egitto, has 50 sons.  To cement peace between them, the 50 daughters are married to the sons.  Danao, then gets his daughters to kill all their husbands because of a prophecy from an oracle.  Only Hipermestra, who is really in love with her husband, Leonice, refuses and lets him escape.  Leonice returns with an army for revenge and, as part of the diplomacy is told that Hipermestra is unfaithful.  He still ravages the kingdom.  Hipermestra throws herself off a building but is saved by one of Juno’s peacocks and the confusion is resolved with a happy-ish ending.  There’s a sub-plot for Arbante (in love with Hipermestra) and Elisa (in love with him) and there is the usual share of cynical servants and, of course, a tenor in drag as the nurse.

I also thought that Cavalli’s setting of it was masterful.  It feels Shakespearean in its length and pacing and the scope of its discussion of dilemmas, personal and political and about the effects of war.  There are some beautiful scenes for lovers and ones of considerable passion and emotion and, of course, quite a lot of bawdy comedy.  It struck me as a really good opera.

So what might an audience find difficult?  I think the first arises from the nature of Cavalli’s operas.  There is a lot of recitative and it tends to move seamlessly into arias which are not really what most audiences think of as arias.  There are no big tunes or really memorable parts, little opportunity for bravura singing and they are short.

This means that there is a huge premium on the words and following the plot. Since composers at this time saw themselves as servants of the words, this is understandable, but this causes a real problem for audiences whose comprehension of Italian is limited.  The most enjoyable Cavallis that I have seen (and the ones which made me realise what a great composer he is) are those that have been sung in English – Giasone at Buxton in the 1980s and the ROH’s recent L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  You need to have direct understanding of the words and, even with surtitles, there was a barrier between performers and  audience.  In many operas you get round this because the music itself is inherently wonderful to listen to.  That doesn’t apply so much to Cavalli.

The next problem is that the first part lasted two hours and five minutes.  That is an awfully long time for an audience to be sitting trying to engage with dialogues that it doesn’t really understand.  An interval would have worked wonders. You really have to be dedicated to last that out.

Finally, many people will probably feel uncomfortable with Graham Vick’s staging.  It’s updated to a contemporary middle east where beheadings, stonings, ill-treatment of women and the destruction of cities are common-place.  There were a lot things that an audience at Glyndebourne wanting to escape might not have liked to be reminded of.  No expense has been spared on the sets, but it’s not a comfortable evening.

For myself, I enjoyed the production, mostly, while wondering whether, in fact, the work bears the full weight that Vick is imposing.  The dialogues, the interaction between the characters are beautifully observed.  Stuart Nunn’s sets are very handsome indeed and chart the move from wealth and lavishness to war and destruction brilliantly.  Even the orchestra, costumed as a rich, paid arab band for the first half, become refugees in the second (there’s a glorious solo violin passage at the beginning of that half).

There are some doubts.  The show begins as you arrive with a number of the brides and grooms wandering round the garden being photographed and there is a spoof news item on the video screens setting the scene and placing it in Glyndebourne.  One of those examples of Glyndebourne taking itself too seriously which is one of the tiresome things about the place.  I wasn’t sure also that he’d got the balance of comedy and seriousness right.  Mark Wilde’s glamorous, hugely enjoyable performance as Berenice, the nurse, might have been even better if he’d been singing in English rather than mugging furiously.  The coup de theatre of Juno’s peacock happened and was astonishing, but was also funny and left the audience giggling.  I’m not sure how you avoid that or if you need to.

No doubts at all about the musical performance, at least to a non-specialist.  William Christie and the very small orchestra achieved wonders – he barely conducted and they followed the singers and worked with them to provide a complete performance – that would have been that much more effective if you actually understood the words.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Emoke Barath, from Hungary, was strong, beautiful and dignified in the title role.  She has an ideal voice for this (I’d love to hear her in Handel) and she made an immensely characterful, sympathetic performer.  She was matched by Raffaele Pe as Linceo – a very fine Italian counter-tenor who caught the eroticism and swagger of the role.  Ana Quintans was delightful as Elisa and Benjamin Hulett did the best piece of work that I’ve seen from him as Arbante – an outstandingly good performance by a very confident, compelling tenor.

Renato Dolcini was splendid as Danao and there was really good work from Antony Gregory and Alessandro Fisher as assorted servants.  This was a cast that was entirely committed and confident.

So this was a really high quality piece of work in every respect.  Just what you’d expect from Glyndebourne.  Anyone interested in Cavalli or the baroque should go.  Whether it will really appeal to a wider audience is another question.  It did feel like hard work.