English Touring Opera's 'Jason'
14 Nov 2013
English Touring Opera have triumphed once again. Their original, adventurous and scholarly production of Cavalli’s Jason combines eroticism with fun, high drama with comic bathos and tumbles them all together into an entertaining musical fiction.
The dazzling debut on 14 November of their four-night Cambridge tour saw the ETO add musical brilliance and a Shakespearian combination of farce and tragedy, with Stuart Haycock’s stumbling stuttering clown, Demus, providing an accomplished counterpoint to the life and death drama of the royal principals.
Devised only 10 years after the opera’s advent, Jason was Venice’s favourite opera for an entire century. Crowds coming for the annual carnival craved raunchy excitement - and musical maestro Francesco Cavalli laid it on. Audiences expected much from their new theatrical art form. A drama directed by the capricious gods, scandal and lust and some frankly sexual material made Jason fit the bill perfectly.
We meet Jason in Colchis at his wedding to the enchanting Medea - the heroic quest for the Golden Fleece forgotten – his mind on love. His muscular lieutenant Hercules, sung with realistic vigour by Andrew Slater, fumes in frustration as his boss shelves the adventure and wants nothing more than long languid dalliance with his new lady. Sex and pleasure were strong motifs in this 1648 production, a time when the newly independent Venice was keen to explore the nature of love, commitment and fidelity and Jason, counter tenor Clint van der Linde, sings the part of a romantic lead with thrilling brio.
At home in his new conquest’s opulent house, a smart grey painted Regency style mansion, Jason is smitten and begs Medea, Hannah Pedley, for more carnal delights. She responds with a transcendent vocal bravura performance and sets the idyllic scene of new love discovered; their duets are lyrically lovely and completely convincing. This Jason is a long way from the valiant Greek hero of legend. He is a man who does as he pleases, with no thought for the women in his world, and his pregnant wife, Isiphile, is forgotten. Director Ted Huffman admits he ‘relishes the deep and understated cynicism’ of the entire story and he does coat his ‘Jason’ with a patina of moral ambiguity. We hear an unscrupulous man sing his way into the hearts of two adoring and beautiful women.
For now firmly in league with Medea, Jason at last gets going with his legendary quest but is shipwrecked by the god Cupid onto the shores of his old kingdom, Lemnos, where his wife awaits his return in an anguish of anxiety. She learns from her spy Orestes, sung with brilliance and originality by Piotr Lempa, that Jason has left her. She sets off to confront him. He convinces her that all is well - but meanwhile arranges for Hercules to have her thrown into the sea the next day. In a mix up of messages, Hercules mistakes his instructions and hefts Medea into the ocean instead.
Jason must be truly the most unpleasant treacherous lover on the operatic stage, but unlike Don Giovanni, no fiery Hell and damnation awaits him. Medea is rescued by her old love Egeus, sung wonderfully by John-Colyn Gyeantey, a despairing suitor from former times. When Isiphine realises her husband meant to brutally drown her, she offers to kill herself. Her sacrifice touches even his self- centred soul and he repents for a happy ending all round.
There may be no Day of Judgment for the calculating, slippery Jason, but this brilliant production leaves us with all the moral ambiguity – and the contemporary resonance of a drama where women are the losers in love and the man literally gets away with murder, as they both forgive him into the bargain. ‘Has anything changed?’ the production asks, as we reflect that the fatal allure of the hero often comes at a very high price for anyone who loves him.
English Touring Opera’s production of The Coronation of Poppea is showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre on 14 November and Agripinna on 15-16 November.