Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)
Elena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was first performed in 1659 and has not been staged since then. Leave it to the Aix-en-Provence Festival to dig it up and give it a full blooded performance at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. There may be good reasons for ignoring the opera for so long but don’t tell that to the Aix people who have produced it. They deliver a masterful and enjoyable production despite some wrong-headed choices.
Elena of the title is none other than Helen of Troy but that was in the future. Cavalli’s opera deals with Helen’s marriage to Menelaus, King of Sparta. The plot is full of twists as various suitors vie for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. There are some wonderful melodies and set pieces and the whole thing eventually ends in happy marriages – for the time being, in any event.
The opera opens with a Prologue which presents a version of the Judgment of Paris where the three goddesses, Juno, Athena and Venus, compete for the Golden Apple. Paris is not in the opera but thanks to the involvement of Discordia, the apple goes to Venus, and June and Athena swear that, although Helen will marry Menelaus, she will be taken away from him.
Director Jean-Yves Ruf treats the Prologue as a burlesque. The goddesses appear in hairstyles that are from Mad Magazine. They shove each other around and give the impression that we have a comic opera in the style of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Cavalli called the opera a “dramma per musica” and I think he wanted us to take his piece, if not seriously, certainly not as burlesque. The rest of the production does not suit the treatment of the Prologue.
The convoluted plot centers, more or less, around the wooing of Helen by Menelaus, Theseus and Menestheus. Menelaus cross-dresses as an Amazon called Elisa in order to get closer to Helen. A bunch of men fall in love with Elisa. Theseus’s real Amazon wife Hippolyta appears and she wants to kill her husband and by this time you are having the time of your life trying to figure out who is what, who is chasing whom and in what part of mythical Greece you are in. The libretto was started by Giovanni Faustini and finished by Nicolo Minato before a good editor got his hands on it to straighten it out. It is badly in need of streamlining and slashing but it is a bit late for that now.
Grab what you can of the central plotline and listen to the music and the singing and you will discover why the opera is worth producing. Cavalli is unfailingly melodic, inventive and simply beautiful in his musical settings.
Start with Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth who sings the roles of Helen and Venus. She is a pretty blonde with a beautiful voice. Cavalli gives her some lovely melodies and her ringing and luminous voice delivers them to perfection.
Rumanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus is a scrawny young man with a simply beautiful voice. His stage presence leaves something to be desired but his singling is simply gorgeous. His hair (and that of some others) could have used some attention if not some shampoo. He seemed to belong nowhere physically but was saved by his vocal ability.
Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães with his deeper voice provided a nice contrast to the countertenor pursuer of Helen. He played Theseus who is married to the Amazon Hippolyta. The latter is sung by Solenn’Lavanant Linke, a woman of some stature well suited to the role.
There is scant characterization in the opera with perhaps the exception of Iro, the buffoon. Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro delights in the role which gives a bit more scope than the lovers have.
Thirteen singers with some doubling up take on more than twenty characters in the over-crowded opera but all find some opportunity to display their talents.
The stage design by Laure Pichat consists of a few wooden panels on stage for the first part and some streamers to indicate the forest in the second part.
Costume Designer Claudia Jenatsch has chosen clothes that seem to fit no time period that I could discern. There are hints of medieval knights’ costumes in Castor and Pollex’s clothes; Renaissance costumes for some but overall the idea seems to be they are mythical figures and they can wear whatever they want. The unkempt hair on some did not help the general appearance.
The Cappella Mediterranea Orchestra under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon was one of the stars of the evening. They played with extraordinary finesse they gave us the best part of Elena: Cavalli’s music.
Director Jean-Yves Ruf had some tough choices to make with a problematic opera. Most of his choices worked well despite some arguable ones. The opera has its shortcomings but it was a delight to see its reappearance after so many centuries
Elena by Francesco Cavalli opened on July 7 and will be performed on various dates until July 19, 2013 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/