You know you're attending Baroque opera when the names of most of the characters (a) begin with a vowel and (b) are near anagrams of each other. With Erimante, Erismena, Orimeno and Aldimira all on the bill, making headway through the synopsis of Cavalli's 1655 opera Erismena was like wading through treacle. Giving up at the third attempt, I happily settled back in the 500-seat Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and allowed Jean Bellorini's spartan staging to lead me gently by the hand through the plot's myriad twists and turns.

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

Cavalli was arguably the most important figure in late 17th-century Venetian opera and Erismena, to a libretto by Aurelio Aureli, was very popular in its day. Indeed, it became the first full length opera to be translated into English, although there is no evidence it was actually performed in Britain at that time.

A potted plot is tricky to describe in a single paragraph, but you need to know that the title character is an Armenian princess disguised as a wounded soldier, who – as fate would have it – turns out to be the long-lost daughter of tyrannical king Erimante. The king, however, has already had a premonition in a dream that Erismena would try to usurp him, so has the warrior imprisoned and orders him to be poisoned. The slave girl Aldimira has two suitors in tow, but falls for Erismena and pleads for “his” release. Crossed purposes and – this being baroque opera – cross-dressing abound (yes, there's a tenor nurse) until a series of revelations results in an improbably happy ending.

Jakub Józef Orliński (Orimeno), Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena) and Alexander Miminoshvil (Erimante) © Pascal Victor
Jakub Józef Orliński (Orimeno), Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena) and Alexander Miminoshvil (Erimante)
© Pascal Victor

The sensuality of Cavalli's score is apparent from the saucy cornetto melody in the brief sinfonia. Everything in Erismena is brief – apart from the length of the opera itself: there are no real arias, but a series of ariosos or recitativo accompagnato which appear to be going somewhere, but evaporate into thin air or morph into something else. Welding Acts 1 and 2 together led to a lengthy first half which tested concentration and patience, especially as the wordy libretto coming thick and fast meant necks were craned up to the surtitles for much of the time.

Bellorini's modern dress production is economical, taking place without anything to mask the stage's workings other than two towers with doors at the top and a huge square frame of metal fencing whose noisy hydraulics negated the benefits of creating platform or prison when lowered and angled. The central lighting featured around 100 coloured bulbs – not unlike Don Giovanni at the Archevêché the previous evening – suspended above the stage, some bulbs exploding at key points in the opera's denouement.

Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena) © Pascal Victor
Francesca Aspromonte (Erismena)
© Pascal Victor

Francesca Aspromonte led the cast as Erismena, her luscious soprano nicely contrasted with Susanna Hurrell's brighter tone as good time girl Aldimira, both bending Cavalli's notes sexily, particularly in the gorgeous quartet with which the opera closes – two sopranos and two countertenors in the closest harmony. Young bass-baritone Alexander Miminoshvili didn't always convince as the irascible king, but the cast boasted a trio of countertenors, each of very different timbre. Jakub Józef Orliński's easy fluidity made him the pick of the bunch as Orimeno, Erimante's ally who ends up marrying Aldimira. Carlo Vistoli bought much tonal beauty to the role of Idraspe. Stuart Jackson's striking tenor resounded as the nurse Alcesta, although he has yet to fully embrace the camp possibilities his near lookalike Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke finds in Monteverdi's drag roles.

Susanna Hurrell (Aldimira), Stuart Jackson (Alcesta), Lea Desandre (Flerida), Andrea Bonsignore © Pascal Victor
Susanna Hurrell (Aldimira), Stuart Jackson (Alcesta), Lea Desandre (Flerida), Andrea Bonsignore
© Pascal Victor

Leonardo Garcia Alarcón drew voluptuous playing from the 11-strong Orchestre Cappella Mediterranea, the Paume's tiny pit dominated by the long jutting necks of archlutes and theorbos. While Erismena isn't a score I'd ever feel the need to revisit, it has a good deal of interest and was certainly performed with great style.