Francesco Cavalli’s Elena received its Canadian premiere tonight at the Jeanne Lamon Hall in a partially staged performance that was still more than enough to charm the audience in attendance. As my companion observed it was a nerdy bunch, ready to laugh at every little gag, no matter how obscure, the loyal followers of The Toronto Consort and their Artistic Director David Fallis, whose sensibility and musicianship seem to be such a key component of the local music scene.
He was surrounded by an all-star cast of baroque specialists, beginning with Consort members Michele DeBoer as Elena and Laura Pudwell as Ippolita, and guests Kevin Skelton as Menelao, Vicki St Pierre as Peritoo and Bud Roach as Iro. There were no weak spots in the cast, that included some wonderful singing. St Pierre and Pudwell showed off their darker colours to great effect, while DeBoer’s higher voice had what seemed to be the biggest part by far.
Elena is a comic opera, one of the first to survive. The story isn’t quite what we’re accustomed to, as we’re not confronted with the horrors of the Trojan War but instead watching Menelaus dressing up as a woman to attempt to seduce Elena (aka Helen) by posing as a wrestling coach. However much scenery or illusion one puts into a staging of this opera, and Toronto Consort used very little set or costuming beyond a hint of Wonder Woman for Menelaus’s amazon outfit plus a golden fleece brought in by Castor & Pollux, the plot is pretty silly, as a series of figures from the heroic age of Ancient Greece are busy trying to seduce one another.
Cavalli deserves to be better known. As with his other operas, his style is a very fluid one, allowing swift progress in the plot. While there are some airs, we’re not yet at a point in opera’s development where the music stops the action for very long, although we did enjoy lovely displays of virtuosity from the singers. The dramaturgy is recognizably baroque with a desire to embellish and to show off skill in the singing & the playing. But because the scale of the work is small – fewer than 10 musicians—the singers were never in danger of being drowned out. I can only speculate on how close we came on this occasion to what would have been heard back in the 17th century, especially given that the original employed castrati, whereas this version juggled the vocal parts a bit.
I was most intrigued by Bud Roach’s character Iro, who is identified as a court buffoon, seeming to echo the tradition of servants such as Harlequin from the Commedia dell’Arte, which was known to have been an influence upon Cavalli. He made his entrances through the theatre, not unlike a Shakespearean clown, in his ability to shatter any possible fourth wall. Roach was diametrically opposite from the rest of the cast in his approach, both in his willingness to look and sound more like a comedian than an opera singer, but also in carrying his own guitar that he played. I wish someone would undertake a fully staged production someday. Not only does Cavalli’s music & story-telling deserve this, but so do we, because these operas are so good.
Elena will receive encore performances Saturday May 13th at 8 pm & Sunday May 14th at 3:30 pm in the Jeanne Lamon Hall, on Bloor St West. More than a mere historical curiosity, this is a work full of beautiful music that’s worth hearing.