Cavalli’s ‘Giasone’ is an operatic improvisation
August 12, 2005
English-born conductor Harry Bicket has had plenty of experience with Baroque music, especially Baroque opera. And he conducted the U.S. premiere of Cavalli’s “Giasone” at South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival in 1998.So Bicket, who conducts Cavalli’s retelling of the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts with the Aspen Opera Theater Center, should have a good idea of how his latest “Giasone” will sound.But Baroque opera, by its nature, is not a predictable form. Unlike Mozart and Wagner, whose opera scores would be relatively detailed, Baroque-era composers like Cavalli worked with less precision and more of an overall feel. Bicket, as well as Edward Berkeley, director of the Aspen Opera Theater Center and of the current “Giasone,” liken Baroque opera to jazz. And musical theater. And acting.”We work out a general scheme of who will play where, and what,” said Bicket, who last visited Aspen from his home in western Scotland in 2002, to conduct the more conventional “Le Nozze di Figaro” by Mozart. “But they become like jazz musicians. Every performance will hopefully sound different, especially among the continuo players, the string instruments.””One of the big differences is,” added Berkeley, “in a Baroque score it’s not really orchestrated in the way we think of an ordinary opera. There are rarely tempo markings, no dynamic markings. The choice of instruments to play behind the singers is not well-defined. In rehearsing, you’re developing the orchestration, the tempi, as the drama is developing with the singers.”It’s like a jazz improvisation. You have a theme, and then the players have to go along. It’s like a play set to music, and you know the melody, you know the tempo because you know the nature of the scene. But a recording you may have bought won’t sound like what we’re doing.”If it’s a challenge for the instrumentalists, who have to follow the idiosyncrasies of the vocalists, it can be doubly so for the singers, who have to find their own ways of phrasing and expressing the parts. “I try to give them the discipline of knowing what the parameters are, so they have the freedom to work within those,” said Bicket, who also plays harpsichord in the orchestra. “It’s much more like a play with actors. The singer initially freaks out; it feels slightly weird. But hopefully in the end it’s very liberating.”Apart from the built-in distinctiveness of Baroque opera, “Giasone” should be familiar territory to audiences. The legend of Jason, who sailed on his ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, and his sorceress lady friend Medea, has been a favorite subject for tragedians for centuries.
Or perhaps it won’t be so familiar. Baroque opera grew out of the Venice Carnival, a celebration of masked identities, cross-dressing and outrageous humor – all of which are featured in “Giasone.” The Aspen production features period instruments, so in place of the familiar sounds of violin and piano are the more exotic strains of harpsichord and viola da gamba. The characters come from a period of extreme political incorrectness; a prominent character, Demo, is a stuttering, hunchbacked dwarf. To top it off, Berkeley has given this “Giasone,” his first, a contemporary setting; the first character to cross the stage, the greatest of the gods, Apollo, is on a motorcycle.And this telling of the Jason myth, with its murders and mass infidelities, is a comedy offset by heartfelt emotion.”For me, it’s a balance between outrageous comedy and incredibly sincere moments, honest moments,” said Berkeley. “It is that balance between the two that gives it a very unique energy. You’ll see a character genuinely lamenting loss, and a desire for reunion – and in the next moment will act silly.”The plot of “Giasone” is a massive tangle of lovers and avengers almost beyond comprehension. “It gets us all muddled,” confessed Bicket. “But when you watch it, it doesn’t seem that way. When you see them and laugh at them and get the music, it’s not that complicated. Harry Potter is more complicated than ‘Giasone,’ but kids get the story.”Of Cavalli’s 10 operas, “Giasone” was the most beloved by far. But even though the party-loving Venetians of his time embraced the farcical comedy, Cavalli would be shocked to know that his creation is still being performed some 350 years after its 1649 premiere.”Cavalli would be delighted. But also horrified,” said Bicket. “It was all about new music, the latest thing. Nobody wanted to hear something written three years ago.”
“Giasone” isn’t the only thing that will sound out of the ordinary at the Aspen Music Festival this week. The Grand Tour of the Baroque mini-festival, which runs from Monday through Saturday, Aug. 15-20, will feature the music of the Baroque era, which lasted from 1600-1750. And that means listeners will get an earful of uncommon-sounding instruments, compositions and performing styles.”Giasone,” for instance, will feature such instruments as the chitarrone, a member of the lute family with a rounded back, and the theorbo, another lutelike instrument, but with a giraffelike neck. The 10 members of the “Giasone” orchestra will perform in a raised pit, so that audience members can see the instruments and best hear the fragile sounds.”The combination of these sounds – plucked, strummed and bowed strings, the harpsichord and organ – is so unusual, quite distinct,” said Asadour Santourian, the festival’s artistic administrator. “They create a sonority that people are not quite familiar with.”It was in the High Baroque period, the tail end of the Baroque era, when what is commonly thought of as classical music took its recognizable shape. “That fluid, kinetic motion forward and that formal statement of form within the music,” said Santourian. “That’s when it all came together.”Tafelmusik, a Canadian ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists that specializes in Baroque music, performs a pair of recitals. Tuesday, Aug. 16, their concert features J.S. Bach, the star of the Baroque era. The performance, Wednesday, Aug. 17, titled The Grand Tour: A Musical Journey, features works by Purcell, Handel, Bach and more.
A chamber music concert Saturday, Aug. 20, features Bach’s Violin Sonata in G major, along with works by Mahler/Schoenberg, Steven Stucky, George Benjamin and Martinu. Lionheart, a male a cappella sextet, performs a recital that night that Santourian likens to “the kind of program done in a Baroque church.”Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman makes his last podium appearance of the season Sunday, Aug. 14, conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, with soloist Robert Levin, and Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.” Also on the program is Honegger’s “Pastorale d’été,” conducted by Mario Sergio Miragliotta.The Aspen Concert Orchestra, conducted by Peter Oundjian, performs works by Stravinsky and Beethoven, as well as Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Wednesday, Aug. 17. A special event Thursday, Aug. 18, has pianist Vladimir Feltsman playing Bach’s English Suite in A minor, Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”The final season performance of the Aspen Chamber Symphony, Friday, Aug. 19, has Asher Fisch conducting works by Hartmann, Mozart, Wagner and Kodály. The season ends Sunday, Aug. 21, with James Conlon conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com