On 20 May, Glyndebourne will be staging a true theatrical feast: the grandest and most spectacular opera of its era, by one of the most important composers in the history of opera. But you have almost certainly never heard of Hipermestra: this is only its second production since it was composed over 350 years ago, and its second outside Italy. How can this be?

<i>A Carnival Prade with Masked Figures</i>: P. Bergaigne
A Carnival Prade with Masked Figures: P. Bergaigne
Perhaps the reasons go back to 5 October 1690, in a wood on the Janiculum hill in Rome, where a group of art and literary critics and theorists held their first meeting. Calling themselves the Accademia degli Arcadi, they set out on a mission to purify and rationalise the arts, in the course of which they were a major influence on the development of opera seria – opera that was expected to transmit noble sentiments from the ancient Greek and Roman poets. Dramatic opera would not recover its full variety and vivacity for another century.

The Arcadians’ prime target was the opera of the carnival seasons in Venice, pioneered by La Serenissima’s most successful composer/impresario: Francesco Cavalli.

For opera’s first decades, the compositions of Iacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi and others had been performed in the palaces of the nobility. That all changed in Venice in February 1637, when the Teatro San Cassiano presented Andromeda, performed by a small company of (mainly Roman) emigrés headed by the poet Benedetto Ferrari. Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi and the only opera composer of his age to also become a successful impresario, saw that the new art form could be brought to a broader public. Two seasons later, Cavalli’s first opera Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo opened at the San Cassiano.

In a period when the Counter-Reformation was bringing the moralistic shutters down over Europe, the Venice Carnival was a haven of unbridled naughtiness. Lasting from St Stephen’s Day (26 December) until midnight on Shrove Tuesday, people were permitted to wear the now-famous carnival masks, which gave cover for all manner of bad behaviour – namely wine, women and song. Cavalli and his peers provided the musical backdrop, fluidly mixing song with speech, comedy with tragedy. Commedia dell’arte characters and themes abound  – the foolish old man, the old nurse, the young squire with the chambermaid – mixing with figures from ancient history and myth.

The 1658 libretto of <i>Hipermestra</i> © British Library Board, General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 11715.c.40.
The 1658 libretto of Hipermestra
© British Library Board, General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 11715.c.40.
Yale University’s Ellen Rosand, who has made a life’s work of Cavalli and is currently part way through a giant critical edition of 14 of his 27 extant operas, argues that Cavalli invented opera as we know it today. Under the commercial pressure of churning out one or more operas each season, he regularised the relationship between composer and librettist. Jane Glover, one of the great conductors of Cavalli, agrees, stating him as a pioneering figure in the development and expansion of the aria, where the world stops for characters to express their feelings, a form which earlier operas had only used sparingly. He popularised the three act structure (introductions, entanglements, resolution), eschewing the lengthy prologues and epilogues that featured so strongly in court performances. He expanded the use of the lament on a descending four chord sequence, which became immensely popular; he introduced into opera the commedia dell’arte relationships between comic servants and their masters. Purcell’s Dido, with her lament “When I am laid in earth”, is a spiritual heir of Cavalli; so are Figaro, Susanna and Leporello.

In many ways, Hipermestra follows the formula that Cavalli developed through his career. The plot is one of Greek mythology’s customary “trying to avoid a prophecy is a bad idea” stories: King Danao commands his fifty daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding night; all comply except for Hipermestra. There is plenty of predicament and despair, but lightened by plenty of comedy – and the happy ending that was obligatory for Venetian opera of the time.

However, Hipermestra is on a larger scale. It’s one of the few Cavalli operas that he did not produce himself, having been commissioned outside Venice for what was essentially a royal command. By the 1650s, Cavalli was at the very top of his profession, achieving what Glover describes as “a near-perfect union of music and drama” and his reputation stretched across Italy. The Florentine Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici commissioned the poet Giovanni Andrea Moniglia to write a festa teatrale (a larger scale work than the usual dramma per musica, with more lavish staging and extensive dance elements); the libretto was sent to Cavalli and the ensuing work was eventually performed in 1658 in celebration of the birth of the Prince of Spain. The Florentines were delighted by what Cavalli offered: when he received the first act, the castrato Atto Melani wrote to the Medicis that “this is truly miraculous music… the music of this first act is so beautiful that no-one who has heard it has been able to stop singing its praises”. Later, Cavalli’s fame spread to the point where he was invited to Paris to write an opera for the highest profile event of all, the 1660 wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain.

Act I Scene 1 of <i>Hipermestra</i>, Etching by M. Bellonni after Silvio degli Alli
Act I Scene 1 of Hipermestra, Etching by M. Bellonni after Silvio degli Alli
So why has this opera – both historically important and, by all accounts, thrilling both musically and dramatically – been sitting for all these years in Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, untouched and unperformed?

Initially, there was the effect of the Arcadians: a shift in fashion in opera and other art away from the licentiousness and loose fun of the Venetian style. But opera has always been subject to the shifting sands of fashion and other changes were extensions of trends that Cavalli and his peers had started. Increasingly, arias became used as a vehicle for the vocal pyrotechnics of star singers, which became the main attraction of what would become bel canto. The da capo aria, which came to characterise 18th-century opera, was also something that had started in Cavalli’s time.

In any case, the prevailing assumption in 18th and 19th-century Italian opera was that the works presented would be new or nearly new: the idea of a frozen repertoire of the great works of yesteryear would have seemed bizarre. By the time that idea became current, in the early 20th century, sensibilities had shifted once again, epitomised by hard-hitting works such as Berg’s Wozzeck. It was hardly a promising medium for a free-wheeling, entertaining style: that would wait until the 1960s, when audiences rediscovered Monteverdi. Since there were only three extant Monteverdi operas, Raymond Leppard explored other possibilities and at Glyndebourne, Leppard created groundbreaking stagings of L’Ormindo (in 1967) and La Calisto (in 1970).

In recent years, with the Baroque revival and the explosion in interest in historically informed performance, Cavalli’s star has risen steeply. The Royal Opera’s 2014 staging of L’Ormindo (in London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a stunning candlelit replica of a 17th century theatre) was a huge hit, thrilling audiences again in its 2015 revival. La Calisto and Giasone have become regulars, while Eliogabalo moves from Paris in 2016 to Amsterdam next year.

So what should we expect from Glyndebourne’s Hipermestra? Cavalli’s scores give the editor/conductor a great deal of scope. In particular, the scores only contain limited detail of the accompaniment: in Cavalli’s day, there might have been five or more continuo players, all of whom would have been improvising (we know this from the orchestral salary lists of two performances, which show three harpsichords and two theorbos, as against a single string player per part). It’s too early for the company to be giving out details, but we know that conductor William Christie has impeccable early music credentials and that he is preparing his own edition of the score. And since Graham Vick’s stagings have explored infinite variety over the years, we can only wait to see how he approaches this text: both ancient (at 350 years old) and new (in that it has sat unstaged for so long).

Raffale Pè, who will sing Linceo at Glyndebourne, is enthused by "the immortal melodies in Hipermestra's arias" and particularly the exquisite words and music of the first scene where Linceo and Hipermestra exchange their love. He also notes that Cavalli's music marks the beginnings of bel canto and is challenging to sing, with extreme ranges, immensely long phrases and fast virtuoso passages.

In 17th-century Venice, there was an all-too-brief period when opera was fresh, sexy and fun. If Christie and Vick are able to capture the essence of that blessed time, we’re all in for a major league treat. Glover closes her biography of Cavalli by quoting the English traveller Robert Bargrave, visiting Venice during the 1655 Carnival, writing about the operas he saw:

“Nay I must needs confess that all the pleasant things I have yet heard or seen, are inexpressibly short of the delight in seeing this Venetian Opera; and as Venice in many things surpasses all places else where I have been, so are these operas the most excellent of all its glorious Vanities.”

 

With thanks to Ellen Rosand for answering at length my questions about Cavalli and acknowledgements to Jane Glover's biography of Cavalli.

This article was sponsored by Glyndebourne Festival.

Public booking for Hipermestra opens online at 6.00pm on Sunday 5th March with tickets from £10.

Notes:

The opera was originally named L'Hipermestra, as Italian names of the period were often referred to with a definite article. For some reason, modern convention uses La Calisto and L'Ormindo, is erratic about L'Orfeo or Orfeo, but drops the "L'" for Hipermestra. Italian sources often modernise it to Ipermestra.

We know that the opera was composed over a period of time and sent to Florence piecemeal, starting in 1654. Moniglia's libretto was published after the first performance in 1658.

Cavalli's trip to France was not a success, due to a combination of court politics and building problems with the theatre in which his work was to be staged. Ercole amante was eventually staged in 1662, well after the royal wedding for which it was originally intended. It was the only major setback in the otherwise smooth progression of Cavalli's career.