I once asked an opera director whether he found it easier to stage a rarely-performed work rather than a well-known opera, and he agreed because he didn’t have to work with the audience’s preconceptions. This was certainly an advantage that Graham Vick enjoyed in staging the UK première of Cavalli’s Hipermestra to open this year’s Glyndebourne Festival. With only one previous professional production since the 17th century, and no commercial recording or published score available, Vick and his team could work with a blank canvas. It's still a huge risk for the company, but there were two key factors they could rely upon: the expertise of Baroque specialist William Christie, who suggested the work, and their own history of performing Cavalli in the 1960s and 70s.

Emőke Baráth (Hipermestra) © Tristram Kenton
Emőke Baráth (Hipermestra)
© Tristram Kenton

The plot of Hipermestra is taken from Greek mythology. She was one of the 50 daughters of King Danaus (Danao), known collectively as the Danaids. The King orders his daughters to marry the 50 sons of his brother Aegyptus, but to kill their husbands on their wedding night, as he had received a prophecy that one day he would be killed by one of these sons. However Hipermestra, who falls in love with her fiancée Linceo, lets him escape at risk of her father’s wrath and his eventual demise at the hands of Linceo, fulfilling the prophecy. So the moral dilemma of the opera is whether Hipermestra was right in acting for love rather than familial duty. Admittedly it’s a no-win situation, but Cavalli’s music gives the opera a happy end (lieto fine) in keeping with the convention of the period – after all, it was first performed in 1658 at the Medici court to celebrate the birth of the Spanish infante. After several twists and turns, deceptions and misunderstandings (and a flying peacock as Deus ex machina!), Hipermestra and Linceo are reunited, as is the secondary couple, Arbante (Danao’s general who is madly in love with Hipermestra) and Elisa (Hipermestra’s confidante). However, in this contemporary staging, Vick seems to subtly subvert that conclusion.

Act 2 of <i>Hipermestra</i> at Glyndebourne © Tristram Kenton
Act 2 of Hipermestra at Glyndebourne
© Tristram Kenton

Vick transplants the action to the contemporary Middle East, depicting Danao as a patriarch in a oil-rich Gulf state, Linceo and his army as a militant Islamic fundamentalist group flying an ISIS-type flag, and Hipermestra and Elisa as suppressed women of both cultures. Vick has cut the Gods from the plot (originally there is a prologue with Gods as in Monteverdi’s Poppea), which certainly makes it easier to find modern relevance in the tale, so maybe only purists will complain.

The biggest coup of Vick’s production was to actively involve the orchestra in the staging. Consisting of two violins and eight continuo players from the OAE, they are in costume and play in a raised pit which forms part of Danao’s visually magnificent palace (with barbed-wire security) where most of the action takes place. At various moments, the musicians step up onto the stage to accompany the singers and, memorably, at the beginning of Act 3 when violinist Kati Debretzeni in a hijab plays an improvisatory lament amidst the ruins of the destructed palace. This image certainly strikes a chord with us, reminding us of the aftermath of so many recent wars in the Middle East.

Emőke Baráth (Hipermestra) and Ana Quintans Elisa) © Tristram Kenton
Emőke Baráth (Hipermestra) and Ana Quintans Elisa)
© Tristram Kenton

Hipermestra was nobly and confidently sung by Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, who is well versed in the language of early Baroque opera, where most of the dialogue unfolds in recitative with occasional arioso sections for stronger emotions. Her voice is perhaps not as flexible and resonant as Ana Quintans (Elisa) whose moving defence of Hipermestra’s fidelity to Linceo in Act 3 was one of the vocal highlights, but with contrasting voices they formed a nice pair. As Linceo, rising Italian countertenor Raffaele Pe sang with charm and stability and he will surely gain more confidence in the run. Tenor Benjamin Hulett hid his well-mannered English tenor and played the cruel Arbante with gusto. In early Baroque opera it is only the lowly characters that gets the catchy arias, hence it was nurse-in-drag Berenice (performed excellently by tenor Mark Wilde) who got all the fun arias, but her suicide in the final scene was rather unexpected – what was Vick trying to suggest there?

Raffaele Pe (Linceo) and Benjamin Hulett (Arbante) © Tristram Kenton
Raffaele Pe (Linceo) and Benjamin Hulett (Arbante)
© Tristram Kenton

And above all, it was the combined improvised continuo forces that fuelled the forward momentum of the performance. Christie hardly conducted in the conventional sense; he led and nodded and just occasionally waved his hands. It was organic and spontaneous music-making with outstanding contributions from all (special mention to lutist Elizabeth Kenny and harpsichordist Benoît Hartoin).

As long as one doesn’t come with the expectations of Baroque arias à la Handel and are able to enjoy beautifully unfolding recitatives supported by endlessly imaginative playing, one is in for a treat. As for whether it is Cavalli’s neglected masterpiece or not, I will need to see it more than once to judge.