Review: Cavalli's L’Ormindo

GramophoneTue 10th August 2010
Engaging performance, enterprising label: L’Ormindo on Pan ClassicsEngaging performance, enterprising label: L’Ormindo on Pan Classics

An engaging performance of this rarely-performed 17th-century opera

Cavalli L’Ormindo

Sandrine Piau sop L’Armonia
Martín Oro counterten Ormindo
Stéphanie Révidat sop Erisbe
Howard Crook ten Amida
Magali Léger sop Sicle
Jean-François Lombard ten Erice
Jacques Bona bar Hariadeno
Karine Deshayes mez Mirinda
Dominique Visse counterten Nerillo
Benoît Arnould bar Osmano
Les Paladins / Jérôme Correas
Pan Classics (M) (2) PC10196 (132’ • DDD)

Musicologists regard Francesco Cavalli (1602–1676) as the most important Italian vocal composer of mid-17th century, but it is far more common to read his name in scholarly monographs than to hear his music. A talented boy soprano, Cavalli became a member of the cappella at St Mark’s in Venice aged 14, and, after his voice broke, continued to sing in the prestigious choir as a tenor; perhaps Cavalli learned a considerable amount from the cappella’s director Monteverdi, although there is no record of him studying formally with the famous maestro. In 1639 Cavalli was appointed as St Mark’s second organist, but after Monteverdi’s death in 1643 the senior musician Giovanni Rovetta was promoted (fairly and rightly) to the top job. Cavalli became first organist in 1665, and eventually succeeded Rovetta in 1668, but by this time he had spent most of the intervening years holding various musical jobs and undertaking diverse freelance work around La Serenissima’s churches, academies and theatres.

Apart from a prestigious two-year trip to Paris at the request of Cardinal Mazarin, Cavalli stayed in Venice for almost his entire adult life, and, even more so than his great mentor Monteverdi, he established opera on the Venetian stage. In 1637 the Teatro San Cassiano was inaugurated as Venice’s first public opera house. Soon afterwards Cavalli started writing operas for the theatre, the sixth of which was L’Ormindo (1644), set to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini. Set in North Africa, the plot concerns two pairs of lovers undergoing trials of jealousy and rivalry, although Barbara Nestola’s concise booklet-note explains that the Venetian audience would have understood all kinds of references and descriptions that obviously applied to their native city. Indeed, the prologue for Harmony is supposed to be set in St Mark’s Square (another clue is L’Armonia’s concluding sentence “Vergine Serenissima, e immortale”).

L’Ormindo has been seldom performed since its first modern revival at Glyndebourne in 1967, in an arrangement heavily orchestrated by Raymond Leppard. Performance practice ideology about early Baroque opera has transformed since Leppard’s lushly upholstered realisations of the late 1960s, and the approach taken by French group Les Paladins in this 2006 recording reflects the newer and more purely scholarly notions that the instrumental ritornelli were performed by a small group of strings, and that the recitatives were accompanied by simple basso continuo players, allowing emphasis to remain firmly in the hands of the individual singers. Jérôme Correas directs from the harpsichord, but has worked as a bass singer for many leading luminaries of the historically-informed musical world, such as Jean-Claude Malgoire, William Christie, Christophe Rousset and Sigiswald Kuijken. Perhaps this experience helps Correas to support his singers excellently. His band consists of only nine musicians: five string players (two violins, two viola da gambas and violone), harp, lute and two keyboardists; ritornelli are played with sincerity and eloquence.

This vivid performance has plenty of dramatic conviction. Sandrine Piau sings only in the six-minute prologue, but casting her as the voice of Harmony seems realistic to me (even if one imagines that the part was written for a high castrato). In the title-role, Martín Oro has his customary sympathy with words, and the voice sounds more comfortable and secure than it sometimes seems in later repertoire. Howard Crook sings boldly as Amida (Ormindo’s close friend); both men turn out to be rival lovers of the beautiful Erisbe (sung seductively by Stéphanie Révidat), who is unhappily married to the impotent old man Hariadeno, and thus feels unfulfilled and searches for satisfaction elsewhere. It says something about the tone of early Venetian opera that this Erisbe’s plight is introduced by Cavalli not as farcical commedia dell’arte, but tender eroticism. The ironic situation of Erisbe’s cuckolding of her dotard husband is played fairly straight, with the comedy judged affectionately by Correas and his singers; the extrovert commentary upon the absurdity of the situation is reserved for Erisbe’s servant Miranda.

Sicle’s lament that Amida no longer loves her (“Chi, chi mi toglie al die”) is sung beautifully by Magali Léger, but more melodramatic and vengeful characteristics emerge when, disguised as a gypsy, she pretends to tell the fortune of Amida and reveals his history of infidelity to Erisbe (at the beginning of Act III Sicle hoodwinks Amida into having her back by staging an elaborate hoax in which she appears to him as her own ghost). The cynical servants Nerillo and Erice are ideally hammed-up by mousy countertenor Dominique Visse and camp tenor Jean-François Lombard; Nerillo’s comic observation that the city Fez presents a vulnerable young woman with a thousand dangers is clearly a satirical homage to Venice (“Che citta, Que costume, che gente”), but, characteristically, Cavalli’s music plunges immediately into a solemn scene for Erisbe lamenting Amida’s faithlessness (without her showing any consciousness of her own flagrant adultery).

Cavalli’s writing is always very beautiful or lively, as the mood dictates. The love scenes contain plenty of ravishing moments. Unlike Monteverdi’s Poppea, there is little place in L’Ormindo for serious political events. However, there is tangible tragic pathos in the moving music of Act III scene 10: Ormindo and Erisbe’s feeble attempt to elope has ended in their capture, and they are ordered to drink poison; happily, it has been substituted for sleeping draught by a crafty friend, who also presents a letter revealing that Ormindo is Hariadeno’s son (nobody seems to mind that son and step-mother conclude the opera by eagerly anticipating the joys of their wedding bed). Accomplished recordings of Cavalli’s operas are few and far between, so this engaging performance by Les Paladins is an important part of a patchy discography. It is also good to report that the enterprising label Pan Classics has a new distribution deal in the UK with Harmonia Mundi. David Vickers

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