The career of Francesco Cavalli (1602–76) falls squarely between those of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), the founding giant of opera, and George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), the second giant. Yet in the judgment of his contemporaries, Cavalli reigned supreme, striding from early triumphs in the nascent public opera house of Venice to renown up and down the Italian peninsula, across Europe and perhaps even in England. If his fame nowadays rests chiefly on the racy mythological shenanigans of La Calisto, he scored a greater hit in his own time with Il Giasone, which takes up the tale of Jason and the golden fleece in the same irreverent spirit. Despite lofty antique trappings, the shaggy-dog sensibility is pure commedia dell'arte, which — like the almost contemporary theater of Shakespeare and fiction of Cervantes — has room for bona fide heroics amid the predominant mockery. We encounterIl Giasone here as performed by the Flemish Opera, Antwerp, in May 2010.
For viewers acquainted with French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, his presence in the title role should be an irresistible draw. Remember his kung-fu Tolomeo opposite Danielle de Niese's Bollywood Cleopatra in David McVicar's off-the-charts Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare? Perhaps for the first time ever, the queen's pesky kid brother, with four arias to her eight, emerged as a genuine contender in their game of thrones. Meanwhile, Dumaux has scored as Handel's Orlando and Rinaldo.
As Giasone, he is first discovered alone in bed, eyes closed, luxuriating in memories of sensual delight, caressed by pairs of arms of two otherwise unseen lovers, as well as his own. Right away, we get the full inventory — the lithe fencer's frame, crooked Pétrouchka smile, unerring expressivity and transparent, light-golden timbre. Any disappointment, as the show goes on, arises from the lack of variety and bravura in the music Cavalli gives Dumaux to sing, and from the weasel of a character he gets to play. Torn between a witch and a wife (Medea and Isifile, respectively), this Jason sees no way out but murder, dispatching his best friend to commit the deed without saying who is to die. "Tell him I kill but one queen a day!" that friend exclaims, throwing up his hands, when a second lamb shows up for slaughter on the heels of the first.
Katarina Bradić, a mezzo of spice and fire, lends Giasone's initially unknown paramour Medea the flaring cheekbones of Martha Graham and mischievous eyes of Patti LuPone. Her incantation to the infernal spirits — with the full cast of other soloists as chorus — is a high point in every way. As Isifile, Giasone's lawfully wedded wife from back home, Robin Johannsen pours forth touching laments in a rich, vibrant soprano.
Other players in the amorous roundelay include Giasone's shipmates Oreste (the presentable, well-schooled baritone Andrew Ashwin) and Besso (Josef Wagner, whose rock-solid bass catches the ear with a touch of gravel), as well as Medea's long-suffering suitor Egeo (Emilio Pons, a tenor of intense emotional flair). Filippo Adami revels in the tenor role of the stuttering clown Demo; Yaniv d'Or, a deluxe countertenor with the face of a movie star and the build of a linebacker, totters on high heels in the drag role of the decrepit bawd Delfa, who says she never sinned out of lechery, just for her health. In Angélique Noldus, the allegorical figure of Love is blessed with the fresh face of an English choirboy and the well-tuned pipes of a supple lyric soprano.
Mariame Clément stages the action amid cargo containers and blast furnaces, in costumes that mix and match antique finery and street styles of today with flourishes of unfettered fantasy. The results are happy, for her touch is light, leaving room for heartbreak as well as entertainment. The score, "revised" (which I take to mean arranged) by Alexander Krampe, calls for fifteen instrumentalists plus a five-piece continuo. Strings predominate, interwoven with cornetto, recorders and lutes to conjure up a lavish Renaissance tapestry in sound. Federico Maria Sardelli, one of the recorder players, also conducts, with a nimble hand.
Katarina Bradić, Robin Johannsen, Angeélique Noldus; Christophe Dumaux, Andrew Ashwin, Filippo Adami, Josef Wagner, Yaniv d'Or, Emilio Pons; Symphony Orchestra of Vlaamse Opera, Federico Maria Sardelli. Production: Mariame Clément. Dynamic 33663 (2 DVDs), 55663 (Blu-ray), 663 (3 CDs), 198 mins., subtitled