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Opera review: Cavalli's 'Giasone' revived by UCLA Opera

February 8, 2010 |  3:15 pm
Isifile

The first thing all reference books proclaim about Francesco Cavalli’s “Giasone,” a hit of the 1649 Carnival season in Venice, is that it became to be the most popular opera of the 17th century. Admired for its wit, its lush melodic invention and its delicious immorality, this entertainment may not have the profundity of such 17th century masterpieces as Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” or Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” but Cavalli’s is still a terrific opera, and three and half centuries seems an awfully long time for it to reach the West Coast, as it finally has.

The resourceful UCLA Opera is the reviver. It presented “Giasone” on Friday and Sunday in Schoenberg Hall with double casts for many of the 14 roles, and the company will repeat it next weekend. Stephen Stubbs, a noted Baroque music specialist, was brought in to conduct. I caught the second cast at the Sunday matinee. Musically, the quality was high. But, sadly, the promising singers proved, in a silly production, puerile.

The opera is a fanciful take on the myth of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason is, to quote the UCLA synopsis, “the coolest dude around” and “apparently a very busy guy.” The busyness is in bed. He sires twins with one queen, Hypsipyle, then sires twins again with another, Medea. Hercules worries that Jason has gone soft. The queens plot against each other. And a cast of loony characters, including a stammering dwarf and various servants and lovers, sing the praises of sex.

Nick “Giasone's” popularity was no doubt enhanced by contemporary accusations that it promoted Venetian decadence, which it did. But the New Grove Dictionary of Opera also presents the work as representing the ideal meeting of music and drama. The libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini displays a subtle, near Shakespearean irony employed to underscore deep emotion. In Cavalli’s colorful score, words leap from the page.

No one can accuse Peter Kazaras’ production of lacking irony. Parody itself is parodied on surtitles, such as “I’m so hot for you Boychick.” A spirit from hell is costumed as a USC Trojan. For three hours, tasteless satire feels suffocatingly sophomoric. Even an attempted rape scene was handled as a prank.

Everyone knows that the University of California is broke, and a bare-bones set of a high platform was no disgrace, nor were costumes that looked to have come from local thrift shops. Making do can spur the imagination, and that was sometimes the case here with clever use of curtains and lighting.

But these singers clearly were capable of more than silliness. A confident Jason, countertenor Nick Zammit -- winner in December of the Metropolitan Opera western regional auditions – sang with grace and style but reminded me here of Zonker in the Doonesbury strip, ever bemused. Andrea Fuentes' Medea was more princess in the Valley Girl sense than queen and sorceress, but she held the stage. Aubrey James, a compelling dramatic soprano, impressively overcame the jokiness of silent movie gestures (along with horror-film flinging of her babies about) and sang Hypsipyle’s lament movingly.

DemoBryce Nicastro spectacularly managed the servant Demo’s comic stuttering while doing cartwheels. Good things can also be said about Brian Vu (Hercules), Julian Arsenault (Besso), Abigail Villalta (Delfa), Mario Chae (Orestes), Griffith Frank (Aegeus) and Katy Tang (Alinda).

The orchestra was but three strings and harpsichord. Stubbs accompanied many recitatives on Baroque guitar or theorbo, a long necked lute. Winds and brass are often added, and they would have been nice.

But only one shortcoming mattered. I hear complaints all the time that the administration at UCLA is becoming ever less arts friendly. A major revival such as this is exactly what UCLA needs for its arts programs to be taken seriously. But for that to happen, UCLA Opera needed to take “Giasone” seriously.

-- Mark Swed

“Giasone,” UCLA Opera, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. 8 p.m. Friday (second cast), 2 p.m. Sunday (first cast). $20. (310) 825-2101 or www.tickets.ucla.edu.  Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes.

Photos: (top) Aubrey James as Queen Hypsipyle, (middle) Andrea Fuentes as Medea and Nick Zammit as Jason, (bottom) Bryce Nicastro as Demo in UCLA Opera's "Giasone." Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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