Why are there not more Cavalli revivals? It is more than 350 years since Elena was last performed. The Aix-en-Provence Festival could be confident of a success with this disinterment; Cavalli was the star of 17th-century Venice, and spent his life honing the art of erudite crowd-pleasing. He wrote 41 operas, all of them hits, and 27 of them survive. Among those resuscitated in recent years, La Didone, La Calisto and Eliogabalo have all proved well worth the effort. Elena was penned between these last two, in 1659, and has mouldered ever since, waiting for Aix.
Elena was the Some Like it Hot of the early baroque. We all know the story of Helen of Troy, the woman with the face that launched a thousand ships. But the real fun comes from the cast of characters added by Giovanni Faustini, Cavalli’s brilliant librettist – or was it Nicolò Minato, who finished the text when Faustini shuffled off this mortal coil? In any case, the show in Cavalli’s version is very nearly stolen by Menelao, who slips into a frock early in the first act and spends the next three hours as “Elisa”, stealing his own share of male hearts before disrobing to win Elena’s.
Of course that is only a fraction of the story. Cavalli’s score calls for no fewer than 23 different characters, which might go part of the way towards explaining why it has languished in obscurity for so long. With its European Academy of Music, Aix-en-Provence has a large pool of excellent young singers on which to draw; 13 gifted principals take the 23 main roles, and a few lesser ones as well. Cavalli knew all about working on a tight budget – Venetian opera of the time was a commercially viable business – and kept his orchestra economically small.
Jean-Yves Ruf’s staging for Aix is unassuming, playful and vaguely silly; it gets better as the evening wears on, as does the young cast. Something positive could be said about all 13 singers, and some merit more praise than space allows. In the two biggest roles, Hungarian Emöke Baráth and Romanian Valer Barna-Sabadus are outstanding, both at home on the knife edge between sentiment and comedy, in turn meltingly beautiful and cuttingly funny. Tall and rangy, Barna-Sabadus is artlessly wonderful as the cross-dressing Menelao, and has all the bloom and agility of a top-drawer countertenor. Swiss-Chilean tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro also shows impressive range as the jester Iro, while Christopher Lowrey is excellent in the smaller countertenor roles.
Perhaps best of all, though, are Argentinian conductor Leonardo García Alarcón and his Cappella Mediterranea. Together they offer us every opportunity to love Cavalli’s fluid, inventive, witty, moving, clever, chaotic, gender-bending tour de force, with an organic musicality that gives every word expression, keeps every dance beat airborne and makes every lament profoundly touching.
The production goes on to Marseille, Lille, Montpellier, Nantes Rennes, and Lisbon. Catch it if you can.
This article has been corrected since original publication to reflect the fact that Valer Barna-Sabadus not Emöke Baráth played the part of Menelao.