Cavalli resumed

Baroque opera is in mini-season these weeks in London, with staged productions of Handel’s Ariodante, Arianna in Creta, Rodelinda, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and concert performances of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and Jommelli’s La Didone (presumably a version of his Didone abbandonata).

Late-baroque opera, of course, from the 1700s roughly; though with English Touring Opera’s production of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone last October and a Wigmore Hall concert of various arias and music from several of his operas, given by L’Arpeggiata last Friday, there has also been opportunity to gain better acquaintance with the composer who was central in several ways to the Venetian mid-baroque of the 1600s, a century earlier.

Tuesday this week saw a further, significant contribution to our live experience of Cavalli’s operas (more correctly, dramma in musica), with the opening night of L’Ormindo (1644); a co-production by Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Opera, with instrumentalists from The Early Opera Company, staged in the new/old Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Bankside. This appears to be the first London production of the opera, which – apart from the first revival of the work in modern times at Glyndebourne in 1967 – has been performed just in the USA and Australia.

Ormindo is very much a work of its time and place, just as Cavalli was central to Venetian Opera in its formative years.

The premiere in 1644 at Teatro San Cassiano in Venice was given by the company Accademia per recitar l’Opera, which Cavalli had founded with fellow musicians from the church of San Marco. Cavalli himself was the managing impresario of this theatre from 1639 to 1644, though contracts were not exclusive and Cavalli had operas staged at three other Venetian theatres during this period, as well as several more staged at the San Cassiano after he relinquished his leading role there.

Giovanni Faustini’s libretto was one of twelve he wrote for Cavalli’s operas, five of these performed at Teatro San Cassiano. Faustini also collaborated with other Venetian composers during this period, and some of his libretteti for Cavalli were actually used for new operas some years later by other composers, as was the practice at this time.

Ormindo indeed was reworked by Cavalli in his 1655 opera Erismena, with a libretto by Aurelio Aureli; the prison scene music in Ormindo was copied almost literally across to that later work, and the rest of the opera follows the plot of the earlier work closely. Aureli then wrote another libretto based on Ormindo, for Le Fortune di Rodope e Damira with music by Pietro Ziani.

Operas were clearly not considered as individual, fixed artistic creations, but as temporary entertainments drawn from a stock of plot elements and visual images which would be familiar to the audiences year after year.

The characters in Ormindo of the nurse (sung by a high male voice), the page and the female confidante, are found in many of Cavalli’s other operas and in those of his 17th century Venetian contemporaries. The buffo servant role is missing from Ormindo – to his credit, Faustini gave the character of Osman a more essential and serious pivotal role in the plot.

The first dramma in musica staged in Venice was Andromeda (music by Francesco Mannelli and libretto by Benedetto Ferrari), which opened the Teatro San Cassiano in 1637. This took advantage of all the stage machinery and production mechanics which had been developed in other locations in Italy during the previous eighty years and came together here in a new form of the spectacular.

Andromeda opens with a seascape, with rocks lit by starlight, and the singer of the prologue in a cloud circling across the sky. Then Neptune’s chariot enters and Mercury flies across, before the scene changes quickly to a flowering woodland with snow on mountains in the distance. A magician rises through a trap in the stage floor, the sky opens for immortals to descend, a palace appears out of nowhere. Not for nothing did the French later insist on an operatic convention that any fantastic devices should have a clear relevance to the plot, which forced Rameau to rewrite Dardanus in the 1740s to exclude a random sea monster.

By the time the Teatro Novissimo opened in 1641 as the fourth Venetian opera theatre, the stage mechanics and effects could be considered to have overwhelmed the music. The second production of 1642 at this theatre was Bellerofonte, with a libretto by Vincenzo Nolfi, music by Francesco Sacrati – and machines by Giacomo Torelli, nicknamed the “great magician”. Engravings of the set designs show ten different settings for the opera, each competing to be the most decorative and realistic. Ormindo was clearly part of this entertainment trend, though its five settings seem restrained by comparison.

Venice itself as both a location and a political force featured in several operas from this period. The opportunity for seascapes obviously met the audience demand for spectacular scenic performances. Bellerofonte, of course, included a harbour scene with the Venetian fleet drawn up by the quay, satisfying both the visualists and the nationalists. La prosperità infelice di Giulio Cesare dittatore, with a libretto by Giovanni Busenello and music by Cavalli, drew on Venice’s mythic origins and used those to exalt the city’s “present glories” of which one was the opera house, used self-referentially to proclaim those glories.

Busenello’s view of opera and the theatre was shared by other authors, among them Faustini – whose Ormindo also portrays Venice on stage. The setting of the prologue represents Piazza San Marco, “the most conspicuous part of the city of Venice”, and the protagonist is Armonia, who summarises the familiar myth of ‘La Serenissima” in new operatic terms:

“It has been five years already that I have shone on you from gilded stages and illuminated my glories; your immortal Muses and divine swans adorn my tresses with new garlands. I, who as a child trod the stages of Athens in jewelled buskins, I, who when Greece was conquered and tamed by the victors of Rome saw no splendour or magnificence equal to yours, Most Serene and immortal Virgin.”

“Five years” of course since harmony (music) first appeared on the Venetian stage. Quite properly, the translation made for the current Playhouse production of Ormindo reworks the prologue to describe the new theatre on Bankside and address directly the present-day audience: one of many thoughtful directorial decisions that have made this production so successful.

Cavalli is known for certain to have written thirty-three operas, though the music for six has been lost. Nine more operas were previously attributed to him by some commentators, but the music for those is also lost and the likelihood is that the libretti were set by other composers rather than Cavalli.

Putting Ormindo in modern performance and recording context, five of Cavalli’s twenty-seven surviving operas are currently available in DVD recordings of live productions (Calisto, Didone, Ercole Amante, Giasone, La Virtu de Strali D’amore); of those five, Calisto, Didone and Giasone also have one or more other audio recordings, and Calisto and Giasone also have current or recent stage productions.

A further five operas are available just in audio recordings: Ormindo, Artemisia, Xerse, Gli Amori d’Apollo e di Dafne ( on the Naxos label, with a large modern symphony orchestra), and Rosinda.

An additional four operas have been staged during the past fifteen months: Doriclea, Egisto, Elena and Eliogabolo; with Elena touring to several opera houses in France.

Along with Calisto (DVD/CD), probably the most familiar of Cavalli’s works to modern audiences and with four stagings in 2014, Giasone (DVD/CD, two stagings in 2013), and Didone (DVD/CD), Ormindo is well represented here, with three different audio recordings currently available, though no apparent DVD recording of any staged production. Tricky as filming in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be – not least preserving the effect of the beeswax candle lighting – one hopes most sincerely that the Royal Opera production of L’Ormindo could be captured for a much larger audience and posterity.

Fourteen operas performed or recorded out of twenty-seven is a remarkably good tally, though obviously these few instances of live performance hardly place Cavalli’s operas in the same league as opportunities to see certain 19th century Italian operas.

Why Cavalli, though, and what instead of his many contemporaries, who also produced new dramma in musica for the dozen Venetian opera houses yearly for most of the years from 1637 until 1702, when Gasparini began developing the form into the more familiar late-baroque opera.

Precious few examples of the music of the other composers survive. No opera scores were compiled from the instrumental parts or published, as the works were only very rarely revived after their first run of a few performances. Knowledge of the works comes more from the libretti, which were published and frequently re-used in part for new operas, and from engravings of the set designs for the productions.

The survival of Cavalli’s opera scores is mainly due to his wealth and business sense, which led near the end of his life to him paying for the music of his operas to be recopied and bound, and, considering them a legacy in both senses, making provision in his will for them to be passed to pupils and colleagues. Given the beauties of the current run of L’Ormindo, those lucky enough to see it can be grateful for his foresight.


L’Ormindo continues at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 April 2014, though is sold out.

Next on in London, is La Calisto at Hampstead Garden Opera from 25 April – 4 May 2014.

L’Ormindo: a tale of two theatres

Opening night for the Royal Opera/Early Opera Company production of Francesco Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. It’s exciting. A great cast, lively conductor, thoughtful director, and a rare chance to see an opera from the Venetian mid-baroque – though with 12 of Cavalli’s surviving 27 operas available on DVD, CD or in live performance around Europe and the USA during the past 15 months, perhaps not that rare.

The venue is new: opened in 2014, and part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on London’s south bank, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse effectively recreates the interior of a late-Elizabethan/Jacobean indoor theatre. The larger Globe theatre, which opened next door nearly 17 years ago as a similar recreation of an outdoor Elizabethan theatre, has proved valuable for Shakespeare, the history plays in particular. The Playhouse has already started well with its exploration of Jacobean drama, and this theatrical archeology is worthwhile even if only for bringing the wealth of plays from the early 1600s to modern audiences.

Sadly, there’s some fanciful marketing from the ‘Globe’. It’s already been drawn to the attention of the Royal Opera, who were unaware, that billing the performers as “singers and musicians” (rather than “singers and instrumentalists”) is a annoyingly incorrect. That parlance makes some sense for spoken plays, where the actors sing the odd song but are not primarily trained as musicians. Given that the cast of L’Ormindo are highly-trained musicians, and the majority of the audience will have crossed the river from Royal Opera House, the idiom seems merely insulting.

Worse, the marketing team have made up a new version of theatre history with the bizarre assertion that the Venetian Teatro San Cassiano, where L’Ormindo was first staged in 1644, is “a perfect match in time and scale” for the Playhouse, which “will provide a rare experience of Baroque opera, and a level of authenticity that promises to be richly revealing”.

“Rare experience” is apposite, as Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres were not built to stage mid-seventeenth century Venetian operas (or any operas at all), and mid-seventeenth century Venetian operas were not written for a building like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This is certainly the first time that the two have ever met.

The Playhouse doesn’t recreate a specific building from a precise date; its model is the Blackfriars Playhouse built in 1596, the design is taken from later drawings, and the decor copied from extant buildings of the early 1600s. But the aesthetic is very much rooted in the turn of the century.

The layout is a stage thrust from one wall of the theatre into the auditorium, with the audience in two tiers of galleries and the pit, surrounding the stage on three sides. The rear stage wall has an unchanging decoration and three doors for actors to enter from “outside” the building. A few musicians/instrumentalists can be housed on a balcony above the rear stage wall. There is no scenery, other than a few props, and no wings, flies, or proscenium arch. The Playhouse, now as then, has an audience capacity of 340.

The Teatro San Cassiano was built in 1637, not many years after the “original” Playhouse, but Italian theatre design was already on a very different trajectory, and English theatres only adopted the southern style towards the end of the 1600s. The San Cassiano theatre, and the dozen similar theatres built in Venice over two decades from 1637, brought together innovations made by theatres across Italy during the previous 80 years.

The auditorium was positioned in front of the stage, rather than around it. The central parterre floor seating may have sloped down towards the stage for better views, and the galleries had five tiers, three of which were divided into boxes. The instrumentalists were place in a small area directly in front of the stage. The audience capacity was close to 1,000.

The most significant difference to the Jacobean playhouses was the use of a fixed proscenium arch. The Teatro San Cassiano had an arch that was probably 32 feet wide and the stage behind it was roughly 70 feet deep. This could accommodate a front curtain to hide scene changes, with side wings, backcloths, relieves, flies, scenery in grooves on the stage floor to be pulled aside revealing more scenery, and rotating two- or three-sided vertical panels or prisms which could transform the scene in a couple of seconds. All very useful, as the plot of Ormindo takes the action through a city, a garden, a palace, a harbour, a cave and, most notably, a prison – and the audience expectation was generally more focused on the spectacular scenic effects, rather than the singing or the music.

None of this matters necessarily: an opera these days can be performed on a beach, in the back of a pub, transmitted to a cinema or actually in an opera house that would be vaguely familiar to the composer who wrote it. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is beautiful and intriguing by itself, and not an un-sympathetic location for music of the 1600s. The cast, instrumentalists and production team for L’Ormindo will put on a superb show.

Just don’t call the combination a “perfect match in time and scale” or “authentic”: because it is neither, on any level.