Mixed messages at Italy's south London opera showcase

Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo | Southwark Cathedral, London
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The Independent Culture

As if to upstage the opening yesterday of ENO's budget-busting 10-opera celebration of the first 400 years of Italian opera, Opera Italiana - a plucky little outfit that has been reviving rarities for almost 40 years now, and on even tighter budgets - took over Southwark Cathedral last Friday to present a rare performance of what is arguably the earliest surviving opera of all: Emilio de' Cavalieri's Representation of the Soul and the Body.

As if to upstage the opening yesterday of ENO's budget-busting 10-opera celebration of the first 400 years of Italian opera, Opera Italiana - a plucky little outfit that has been reviving rarities for almost 40 years now, and on even tighter budgets - took over Southwark Cathedral last Friday to present a rare performance of what is arguably the earliest surviving opera of all: Emilio de' Cavalieri's Representation of the Soul and the Body.

A moralising fable in the allegorical mode of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Cavalieri's Representation may be more firmly rooted in the sacred tradition of the medieval mystery plays than in the new secular dramas coming out of the humanist salons of the Florentine Camerata, but musically it pioneers the same innovatory language of expressive solo recitative and melodic arioso. Premiered in Rome during the carnival season of 1600, it actually predates Jacopo Peri's Euridice - the work usually hailed as the first known opera - by several months (and ENO's earliest offering, Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, by 43 years).

Cavalieri himself claimed that those who attended both his and Peri's premieres infinitely preferred the former - "since the music moved them to tears and laughter and pleased them greatly, unlike the music of Florence, which did not move them at all, unless to boredom and irritation" - and I see no reason to doubt his assertion. Peri's monody may be more avant-garde in its use of dissonance and chromaticism but it's monotonous, too, while Cavalieri's more varied mix of madrigals, solo and ensemble songs, and both vocal and instrumental dances is a clear crowd-pleaser.

Whether La Rappresentatione is really an opera, though, remains moot - and Opera Italiana's skimpy "semi-staging" stopped well short of halfway towards convincing one. As the brains behind the famous Florentine Intermedii of 1589, the most spectacular stage show the Renaissance had ever seen, Cavalieri clearly relied on scenic effects to enliven the presentation of what is essentially a didactic church parable with an all-too predictable outcome: Body and Soul, having both been exposed to the evils of the flesh, unsurprisingly agree to pursue the path of virtue. But here, with the many dances left undanced and the climactic visions of Hell and Paradise left unrealised, there was nothing to delight the eye and divert it from the lack of real drama but a few pretty costumes and the ornate interior of the cathedral itself (strikingly illuminated on Friday night by flashes of lightning).

There was, fortunately, much to delight the ear instead - with largely impressive solo singing from a young, committed cast (Madeleen Ijsselmuiden's vibrant Soul and Ana Martinez's florid Guardian Angel chief among them), and sprightly instrumental playing under Alexander Bryett's veteran baton - and one can only be grateful to Opera Italiana, which gave the London premiere of this work in 1982, for persisting in its championship of the man who paved the way for Monteverdi.

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