Erismena

Pier Francisco Cavalli, libretto by Aurelio Aureli
English Touring Opera
A concert performance at the National Centre for Early Music, York
(2006)

Publicity photo

ETO has never shied away from staging lesser-known works alongside Puccini and Verdi's greatest hits, but this year's Baroque Festival Tour is a truly heroic undertaking. Monteverdi's Orfeo and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas are reasonably familiar to modern audiences, but how many people have heard of Cavalli's Erismena and Handel's Tolomeo - or indeed of Carissimi's oratorio Jephthe, which ETO is performing in a staged version? And more to the point, are these obscure works worthy of revival?

Erismena was first performed in 1655 and became one of the most successful operas of the seventeenth century. An English singing translation (the first of its kind) dated 1673 seems to suggest that Erismena may have been London's first taste of Italian opera. One can only wonder what English audiences made of this exotic import, and if the anonymous translation - also used by ETO - helped them to follow the labyrinthine plot.

Baroque librettists never let clarity and commonsense stand in the way of a dramatic story and Aureli was no exception. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Erismena contains more plot elements than the entire Ring cycle, and it's impossible to summarize the story in less than 500 words and without diagrams. Suffice it to say that after the usual complications involving disguise, bent genders, narrowly avoided incest and attempted murder, true love is rewarded and a father reunited with his long-lost daughter. All of which would probably have been just as confusing had this not been a concert performance, although the cast did their best to help by dressing to indicate the social status of their characters.

As is usually the case with Baroque opera, the most sensible course of action is to stop struggling with the plot and simply enjoy the music. Despite the fact that Cavalli lacked the dramatic genius of Handel and Monteverdi there is a great deal to enjoy in Erismena, although the appealing arias and duets are strung together with long stretches of monotonous recitative. Two characters were cut from ETO's version of the opera (for this relief much thanks) but the remaining seven roles are sung with great conviction by Andrew Slater (King Erimante), Jonathan Peter Kenny (Prince Idraspe), Laura Mitchell (Aldimira), Huw Rhys-Evans (Aldimira's maid Flerida!), Patricia Orr (Prince Orimeno), David Stout (Argippo) and Rachel Nicholls (Erismena). The ETO Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Brian Gordon, gives a fine account of Cavalli's uneven but interesting score.

Finally, all credit to English Touring Opera for having the courage to embark on such an unusual and financially risky project. If you are tired of Tosca and bored with Butterfly, the Baroque Festival Tour is an excellent introduction to the weird and wonderful world of early opera.

At the Coronation Hall, Ulverston - 17th November
At the Festival Theatre, Malvern - 24th November
At the Theatre Royal, Bath - 28th November

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson