A first recording of a Cavalli opera is bound to be an event for lovers of the baroque. This one was made following the successful staging of Cavalli's lovely middle-period opera "Artemisia" in July 2010 in Montpellier and Hannover, by the same cast of singers with La Venexiana directed by Claudio Cavina.
The plot is a complex story involving political power, class differences and three pairs of lovers of varying morality and constancy. In addition to the liberated, but by no means liberating, Queen Artemisia, there is another main character called Artemia, which makes things seem a bit more complicated to begin with. But, once you get to grips with the whole thing with the help of the well-translated libretto, the main protagonists are all credible and distinctive characters, well-rounded and developed during the course of the action. In any case, the personalities involved and the vagaries of the story serve mainly as a vehicle for what interests Cavalli most - namely the musical expression of human passions and foibles. Thus the composer can give free rein to his inexhaustible capacity for gorgeous melodies ranging in mood through the tender, tragic, comical and joyful.
Since this is mainly an opera seria, much of Cavalli's finest music is found in the laments, beautiful expressions of love and longing, such as Artemia's "Ardo, sospiro, e piango" (CD 1, track 15), reaching a crescendo of intensity, gorgeously sung here by Roberta Mameli and superbly complemented by the instruments. There are equally powerful passages elsewhere, such as Meraspe's "Cara, cara" in Act II (CD 2/07) and Artemia's "Ch'io peni così" in Act III (CD 3/01), further enhanced by La Venexiana's heart-rending ritornelli. Another magical highlight is Meraspe's lullaby aria in Act III, "Ecco il mio ben che dorme" (CD 3/09).
As already mentioned, Cavalli's main focus of interest is on human emotions and behaviour, and elements of complexity, amusement and sheer incomprehensibility are all part of the mix. There are a few comic interludes, mostly involving the vain and deluded old nurse Erisbe - sung, characteristically for Cavalli, by a tenor in drag. And, since this is baroque opera, it's no surprise to find another character - in this case Meraspe - pretending to be somebody else and miraculously getting away with it for almost the entire evening (until the last scene, obviously), even though everyone - except perhaps for people in the cheapest seats - can see his face perfectly well. And there is a touching human frailty about the protagonists' character flaws, as illustrated in such delicious exchanges as this - Artemia: "Now you understand your felony, do you, treacherous monster?"; Ramiro: "My faults are innocent faults". Couldn't we all say that? What a great excuse to keep in reserve for next time you're accused - unjustly, I'm sure - of some alleged misdeed or perceived shortcoming and are forced to defend yourself! In fact you might find it works even better in the original Italian: "Sono le colpe mie, colpe innocenti". Anyway, in spite of such tiffs, and just to spoil the end of the story for you, the reckoning comes in the final scene and the characters all get married to one another with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
But enough of baroque opera plots. The main thing is that Cavalli's score is a masterpiece - graceful, expressive and full of fine melodies, with the music flowing seamlessly between recitative, aria and instrumental ritornello. And this performance - on a scale more intimate than, for example, the Cavalli recordings by René Jacobs - is subtle, affecting and altogether beautiful. All the singers are excellent, with sopranos Roberta Mameli and Marina Bartoli, countertenor Maarten Engeltjes and bass Salvo Vitale being among my favourites. The musicians of La Venexiana all play their instrumental parts in superb style. Above all, credit is due to Claudio Cavina. This outstanding singer and director has emerged in recent years as one of the great baroque interpreters of our time, and in this recording his inspired, sensitive and unfailingly stylish direction does full justice to this lovely work.