Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)
L’Egisto (1643)
Marc Mauillon (tenor) – Egisto
Sophie Junker (soprano) – Clorti
Zachary Wilder (counter-tenor) – Lidio
Ambroisine Bré (soprano) – Climene
David Tricou (counter-tenor) – La Notte, Apollo
Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre
rec. 2021, L’Opéra Royal, Versailles, France
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS076 [2 CDs: 126]

To a weird extent one feels, listening to this new recorded of Cavalli’s L’Egisto, that the wheel of ‘authentic performance’ has in a way come full circle. When the pioneering operas of the early renaissance were first revived in the 1960s, they were mainly given in editions made by the indefatigable Raymond Leppard – who certainly brought the music to a broader public audience than had been the case with earlier attempts at revival, but also exercised a heavy editorial hand by making cuts and alterations to the music itself and adding layers of additional harmony and orchestrations that went well beyond the simply improvised elaborations of a figured bass line that would have been expected from the economically cash-strapped Venetian opera houses of the seventeenth century. These Leppard editions, beginning with The coronation of Poppea and rapidly embracing the whole of the extant Monteverdi canon, moved on to Cavalli in the late 1960s with elaborate Glyndebourne productions of L’Ormindo and La Calisto, both subsequently enshrined on still available studio recordings with their stellar casting, and finally to a production of L’Egisto for Scottish Opera – which was where I first encountered this score, in a television broadcast.

The ‘authenticists’, and editors of the older and stricter school, were from the first highly critical of the liberties that Leppard took with the texts of these operas, and in particular of the enrichment of the harmonic and instrumental textures which brought the sound of the scores into the realm of high romance. Later theatrical presentations of Monteverdi returned to the original much smaller ensembles of a baroque ‘pit band’ of a handful of improvising musicians comprehensively outnumbered by the number of singers appearing on the stage – I encountered two such performances of Poppea under the batons of Roger Norrington and Rinaldo Alessandrini from the 1980s onwards. But even so there was always a slightly naughty hankering for the richness of the Leppard editions, and slowly the tendency of the ‘authenticists’ themselves returned to a more richly decorated palette, taking their cue from such exponents as Nicholas Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall and René Jacobs. Justification for this was not hard to establish; Monteverdi and his successors were clearly quite happy to expand their music to fit larger forces where these could be supplied, and their emphasis on the demands of the dramatic element in their operas surely argued that they would have delighted in the most extravagant effects if these could have been furnished for their productions. This new recording of Cavalli’s L’Egisto makes no bones about the provision of very substantial orchestral forces indeed: seventeen players distributed across a wide range of instruments, several doubling on various combinations including no fewer than eight providing elaboration of the bass continuo line. There are indeed places in this performance, such as the beautiful lament Piangete, occhi dolente [CD 1, track 23], where the sheer richness of sound from no fewer than six violins transports us right back to the emotional weight of the Leppard edition.

L’Egisto does not indeed appear to have been the subject of a previous complete audio recording, which is surprising in view of the sheer inventiveness of much of Cavalli’s writing. The provision of an extensive mad scene for the hero marks the beginning of a long tradition in Italian opera; and although, as usual with operas of this period, much of the plot develops through a series of recitatives and arioso passages, there are enough purely melodic passages to keep the listener intrigued and involved even with the singularly wayward passions of the characters. The opening passage, with night passing to day, is strongly mythological in tone and makes an imposing introduction with the dark tones of the orchestra supporting the resonant David Tricou. The errant lovers, with their persistently annoying habit of disastrously addressing each other within earshot of their rivals, are well taken by Marc Mauillon, Sophie Junker, Zachary Wilder and Ambroisine Bré, although they do not always remain faithful to the composer’s undoubted intention that they should provide dramatic weight even at the expense of beautiful line. But there are no weak links in the cast, and lovers of baroque opera should not need to hesitate. The set is handsomely presented, in a slipcase with a substantial booklet containing not only the text with translations into both French and English but also a detailed synopsis and two substantial essays on the opera itself – all handsomely illustrated in colour. Indeed, this is another in the series of luxurious presentations from the Opera of Versailles to which we have become gratefully accustomed. The only thing missing is a description of the voice types for each role; those given below are based on those stated on Wikipedia (although those themselves are inconsistent with each other, and of what we hear on this recording).

Although the set advertises itself as a “world premiere recording” the Scottish Opera television relay of the Leppard edition has been intermittently available on pirated video copies. And the opera does benefit from the listener being able to see and hear the context of the bewilderingly complex dialogue. But the quality of the transfer is poor, with persistent video interference at the bottom of the screen which can only be removed by adjustment of the screen size (incidentally losing the lower line of the English subtitles on the video) and dubious quality of sound. But the television relay was repeated more recently – I have a copy of a videotaping from that later broadcast – so it is clear that better-quality prints are in existence, and one would welcome a commercial release of what is an enthrallingly good production even when the singing is not as good as on this new CD set.

What would be even more welcome would be a video version of Leppard’s edition of Cavalli’s La Calisto in Peter Hall’s production with the young Ileana Cotrubas in the title role and Janet Baker resplendent in the dual role of Diana and Jupiter-as-Diana, the latter being one of the greatest and most unexpected comic turns I have ever seen on the operatic stage. There is a presumably pirated copy of the original TV broadcast on YouTube, but the quality both of picture and sound is execrable. We need a thoroughly cleaned up and remastered commercial version; with the cachet of the Glyndebourne cast, I am sure it would sell. But then, that applies to a great many other TV broadcasts over the years which appear to have simply vanished into the ether. Why do the companies persist in deluging us with ghastly modern operatic productions on DVD, in performances that one would never wish to see again, when there are so many superlative videos languishing unseen in the archives?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Other Cast

Romain Bockler (bass) – Hipparco
Eugénie Lefebvre (soprano) – Aurora, Amore, Hora
Nicholas Scott (counter-tenor) – Dema
Marielou Jacquard (soprano) – Bellezza, Fedra
Caroline Meng (soprano) – Hero, Venere
Victoire Bunel (contralto) – Cinea, Semele
Floriane Hasler (contralto) – Didone, Volupta