The Royal Theatre in Versailles presents a revival of the Erismena production which premiered at Festival d'Aix last summer. The cast and the orchestra are the same, with the exception of Lea Desandre, who was replaced by Benedetta Mazzucato. Considering the norms of the 17th-century operatic world, Erismena contains some novel elements: it is the first example of an opera with a completely fictional plot which is not based on some historical fact or mythological story. This, alas, does not help the plausibility of the events, nor the intelligibility of the extremely intricate story. As usual in Cavalli, the plot has a tendency towards way too many disguises and cross-dressings, which, in turn, produce too many twists and turns of events which culminate in an extremely improbable happy ending.

Carlo Vistoli (Idraspe) and Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena) © Pascal Victor
Carlo Vistoli (Idraspe) and Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena)
© Pascal Victor

Erimante, king of the Medes, has just defeated the Armenians in battle. Erismena, an Armenian woman, disguises herself as a warrior to try to save herself from slavery, only to end up as Erimante’s prisoner. She is looking for her lover Idraspe, who has abandoned her. Idraspe is at King Erimante's court, under the name of Erineo. He is one of the two suitors of the beautiful slave Aldimira, the other suitor being Orimeno. Aldimira falls in love with none other than the "warrior" Erismena, who plays along, hoping to use Aldimira's help to escape. Several incomprehensible plot twists later, Erismena is recognized as the lost daughter of King Erimante, Idraspe/Erineo and Aldimira turn out to be brother and sister (and of royal Spanish blood) and the happy ending is realized with the two couples Idraspe-Erismena and Aldimira-Orimeno singing a ravishingly beautiful quartet which closes the opera. The set of characters includes  a "lower caste" sensual, happy-go-lucky couple, Flerida and Agrippo, a sort of Papageno-Papagena pair. And, of course, we have a nurse who is a man in drag – it wouldn't be Cavalli otherwise.

The production by Jean Bellorini was aggressively bare and empty. The cage stage was naked, hidden only by a few elements: two doors, a few folding chairs, a vault of lighting bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and a large frame of metal net, which represented different architectonic elements, a prison, or a shelter. The costumes were a match to the staging: modern and aggressively unflattering. The staging directions were clearly well thought through and gave the performance a sense of purpose; the singers were committed in their acting and their singing. Nevertheless, the overall feeling was of an opera in concert: the staging, the costumes, the movements of the performers, albeit convincing and seemingly purposeful, felt disconnected from the music and its style.

Stuart Jackson (Alcesta) and Tai Oney (Clerio) © Pascal Victor
Stuart Jackson (Alcesta) and Tai Oney (Clerio)
© Pascal Victor

Leonardo García Alarcón conducted the ensemble Cappella Mediterranea from the harpsichord; and 11 musicians gave a stylish, elegant reading of the score. Cavalli's music came through with glorious warmth and sensuousness, although at times with less precision that it requires. The overall performance of the orchestra was in any case a success; the cornetti in particular were extremely enjoyable.

García Alarcón managed to give great unity to the performance; the orchestra never overpowered the singers, and the ensemble moments were flawless. The strongest asset of this Erismena turned out to be the young cast, which was led by the fiery, warm voice of Francesca Aspromonte, recently heard in Versailles as Atalanta in Handel’s Serse. An area of improvement for her could be the phrasing and a greater commitment to giving each word meaning and feeling, a key feature of the recitar cantando. Age could be a factor here; Aspromonte is extremely young. Susanna Hurrell, as Aldimira, provided a nice contrast as a different soprano voice that was more brilliant and very shiny on the top, entirely appropriate for Aldimira's joyful, silly character. The third female cast member was Benedetta Mazzucato; her well-centred mezzo conveyed the sexy, teasing behaviour of the servant Flerida.

Andrea Bonsignore (Agrippo), Jakub Józef Orliński (Orimeno) and Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena) © Pascal Victor
Andrea Bonsignore (Agrippo), Jakub Józef Orliński (Orimeno) and Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena)
© Pascal Victor

Alexander Miminoshvili, as Erimante, sounded strained at times and not at ease in his music. The opera features no less than three countertenors. Carlo Vistoli as Idraspe/Erineo had the most interesting part, with several aria-like moments and duets, which he interpreted with emotional involvement. His voice has a wide palette of colours which gave us a living, credible portrait of Idraspe. Orimeno was Jakub Józef Orliński, a young singer to keep an eye on. His voice has a pure, silvery soprano quality that is incredibly easy on the top, although it did seem to lack depth, sounding a bit monochromatic. The third countertenor was Tai Oney as the servant Clerio, who despite a somewhat metallic voice, possesses great potential and good acting qualities. All the other men in the cast contributed to a successful performance and were received warmly by the audience.

***11