“... 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.” So wrote the entranced English traveller Richard Bargrave in 1655. These days, however, Venice travels to England in the form of the English Touring Opera’s 2013 autumn season production. Jason, the second “Baroque Opera from Venice” of their programme, opened at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music on Friday. The other two operas in the ETO season are Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina.

Peter Aisher (Apollo) © Richard Hubert Smith.
Peter Aisher (Apollo)
© Richard Hubert Smith.

Written by Francesco Cavalli, Jason (Giasone) opened during the Venetian Carnival in 1649. With lyrics by Giacinto Cicognini, the opera begins on Colchis with the Argonaut Jason at the beginning of his quest for the golden fleece. From there the plot spins out into something almost unrecognisable from the Greek myth. True, he has captured the heart of the sorceress Medea, but he can hardly be dragged out of bed by his more manly henchman, Hercules, to chase after the glistening wool he has travelled so far to obtain. This Jason is less of an adventuring and conniving hero and more of a sensual rogue enslaved to sex.

The libretto used by ETO is by the late theatre and opera director Ronald Eyre. I’m uncertain if Eyre or ETO reduced the libretto – it’s half the length of the original. Much of the debating that goes on over the struggle between love and duty has been cut, and what remains is pure storytelling, a no-frills sequence of events that moves us quickly through a story of loves betrayed and restored. It’s done exceptionally well: everything – lyrics, music, humor and action – moves seamlessly. This is due partly to the form itself, with its long continuo-accompanied recitatives and occasional arias.

The music was provided by the Old Street Band, a period orchestra of some 25 instrumentalists. I’m a fan of Baroque orchestras, and the music itself. There is something almost innocent about the combination of strings and woodwinds, and I thrill to the continuo and voice combination, which to my ear seems more correctly – or perhaps humanly – balanced than symphony and voice. And then there are the wonderful instruments that add a visual exoticism to the elusive sound – theorbo and guitar, dulcian and recorder. The conductor Joseph McHardy directed from the harpsichord, and his playing was sensitive and graceful without being fragile.

The singers performed well: mezzo Hannah Pedley, who sang Medea, has a very warm lower register, and gave us a convincingly magical incantation, complete with a book of spells that sprang into flames. Soprano Catrine Kirkman sang the laments of the abandoned Isiphile with the right levels of distress and sweetness. Countertenor Clint van der Linde sang Jason and was able to achieve a masculine presence along with the flute-like qualities of the male contralto sound. He made Jason a wayward and somewhat sexually ruthless male, rather than the effeminate, sensual creature often identified with parts that were originally sung by castrati. Tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey sang the despairing and passionate Egeus.

The secondary roles were suitably colourful, with basses Andrew Slater and Piotr Lempa singing Hercules and Orestes, adding some deeper sounds and resonance to the opera’s otherwise higher-pitched sonics. Tenor Peter Aisher, who was a stand-in for principal Stuart Haycock, acquitted himself well in the role of the comic Demus, and got the best costume accoutrement, bedecked as he was with a waist-length red beard, in the role of Apollo. And countertenor Michal Czerniawski sang Delfa, Medea’s irritable old nurse.

The creative team chose a setting that director Ted Huffman describes as “neither classical nor contemporary, but rather an invented world... a world that reflects both the playful fluidity of Cavalli’s music and the quasi-historical syntax of Eyre and Cicognini’s words.” Which seems to mean that they raided the costume room and chose whatever the singers could fit into. Even so, it was fun and light and completely palatable. Samal Blak’s set designs cleverly morphed from the stately interior of Medea’s Colchis to the collapsing and tree-invaded kingdom of the abandoned Isiphile’s Lemnos.

Admiration and applause are due to ETO, whose ability to create original, gracious and amazingly transportable operas extends the reach and audience of the demanding theatre that is opera.

***11