English Touring Opera have a sure touch in choosing repertoire: their exhumations of neglected works are always successful. Thus it was with Francesco Cavalli’s Jason, in its day the most popular opera in Europe. Cavalli sang and played the organ under the tutelage of Monteverdi, and in Jason there are stretches when you could easily believe it was by his great master: the ritornelli, the ornamentation, the whole thrust of the music feels Monteverdian, until you are pulled up short by something which reminds you it’s not.
The plot quickly abandons Greek myth to go its own way in response to the requirements of 17th century Venetian audiences – no children are killed, and all the characters live happily ever after. In this retelling, the Golden Fleece barely figures – the story turns on Jason’s order to Hercules to murder his jilted lover Isiphile (by throwing her into the sea) so that his affair with Medea can proceed; however, Hercules accidentally throws Medea into the sea, and when confronted with his caddish behaviour by Medea’s ex-lover Egeus, Jason has a change of heart and begs forgiveness all round. Monteverdi would never have countenanced feel-good stuff like this sophisticated urban entertainment.
Director Ted Huffman sees it as pervaded by a very modern cynicism and, with Samal Blak’s effective designs, his production keeps a balance between narrowly-skirted tragedy and broad comedy. Vocally the performers may not all be top-notch, but the drama never flags for an instant and it capitalises on three born comedians. While the royals pursue their strife-torn destinies, bass Piotr Lempa’s gale-force Orestes plays hilariously against tenor Peter Aisher’s stuttering, Caliban-like Demus. And though countertenor Michal Czerniawski was announced as being unwell, the comic timing of his bawdy old nurse Delfa was spot-on, as was his punk Cupid, while his well-focused sound was more pleasing to the ear than that of Clint van der Linde, the countertenor in the title role, who had a tendency to whoop.
Besieged by John-Colwyn Gyuantey’s tearfully melodious Egeus, Hannah Pedley’s Medea had a heft nicely counterbalanced by Catrine Kirkman’s delicate soprano as Isiphile; when Andrew Slater’s commanding Hercules simultaneously duelled and duetted with Jason, the scene managed to be convincing without missing a beat. No praise too high for the continuo support from the Old Street Band, under its director Joseph McHardy: a period-instrument ensemble with an unerring feel for idiom.