The Grimeborn season at the Arcola Theatre often achieves minor miracles. This production of an opera by Cavalli from seventeenth century Venice is a triumph – both for Marcio da Silva and his team and for the festival. The piece dates from 1654 (a few months after Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector in England) and was first performed in Venice and then revived in Paris. Da Silva explains the background to the career of Cavalli and the genesis of the opera in his fascinating and informative notes in the programme – which is as good as anything from Covent Garden and, thanks to Grimeborn, is free. The work’s dramatic structure of short fast moving scenes – often with just two singers – is at first a little disconcerting for those of us brought up on Verdi. And the dominance of ‘speech pattern’ recitative, with little room for extended arias or duets, also takes a while for the ear to get attuned to. But by the end of the evening the little attention needed is amply repaid.
Xerse is a Persian king with a flamboyant disrespect both for convention and for the feelings of those around him. Having jilted Princess Amastre, he decides to woo Romilda who is the non-royal daughter of one of his generals. He disregards the fact that she is in love with – and loved by – Arsamene, his brother. Despite the efforts of various courtiers and hangers-on, Xerse relentlessly pursues his evil desires and only a series of disguises and mistakes thwart his plans. Whether you consider the ending happy or not – or even as embodying any sort of moral lesson – is very much a matter of personal judgement. I can’t say I care.
The limitations of the Arcola “stage” are turned to advantage by da Silva and his colleagues Stephani Gurga and Benjamin Reidel in finding a stylised mode of performance that matches perfectly Cavalli’s exquisite music. Black and grey modern dress – except for Amastre’s final appearance – and formal choreographed movement for most of the drama works to heighten the portrayal of conflict and emotion. All the performances are adequate – some are much more than that. Sophie Levi as Romilda sings with an assured baroque gloss and portrays her conflicting emotions with real depth. Helen May as Amastre has a less complex character to portray but makes the most of her travesti role. Nathan Mercieca as Arsamene and Eric Schlossberg in the comic role of Elviro are both models of the new wave of counter-tenor singing and bring life and vigour to their roles.
The musicians are splendid. Stephanie Gurga guides a proper baroque ensemble, including harpsichord, lute, and cello continuo and they provide just the right underpinning for some very demanding singing roles. It is difficult to explain why such a foolish plot and such formal and ancient musical conventions can combine to provide an evening of operatic magic in Dalston 564 years after its premier. But they absolutely do and it is another feather in Grimeborn’s cap.