The Early Opera Company and their director Christian Curnyn are regulars at Opera at Iford, the festival hosted in the grounds of Iford Manor, some 5 miles outside Bath. The opera season at Iford spreads itself leisurely over the summer months but 34 new productions over the last 13 seasons is no mean feat; this summer's Figaro was only the second time that an opera's been repeated. The three operas per year are staged in the intimate surroundings of the cloisters, at the far end of the gardens, laid out by former owner Harold Peto in the early years of the twentieth Century. The action takes place on a central stage and the small audience is positioned around it on three rows of seats, observing the goings-on through columns of Pavonazzo marble and tumbling clematis.
There's no denying the special quality of the surroundings but in Martin Constantine's sharply directed production, Cavalli's Giasone quickly knocks one out of any state of complacency a good picnic with views of the rolling Wiltshire countryside might have induced. Led from the harpsichord with a wonderful sense of momentum and evident affection by Curnyn, it's an opera that has lost little of its relevance and wit. First performed in Venice in 1649, it was a popular hit that enjoyed almost unheard of longevity on both the Venetian stage and further afield. In a heady mixture of mythology and bawdy humour, the supposed hero, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) is a selfish, unthinking everyman. He is motivated more by desires aroused in him by his latest sexual conquest than by the ambition born of the promise of military immortality. Giasone broke all the rules and once the arbiters of taste managed to outshout the chorus of public approval, it sank into obscurity. It remains rarely performed but, on this showing, should be known to a wider audience.
Making the most of the small space at his disposal, Constantine and his designer Signe Beckmann set the first act not in Colchis the legendary home of the Golden Fleece, but Colchis the garishly branded sex resort. The act takes place in a room rented, one suspects, by the hour; it houses a mini-bar, television and a large bed with ghastly satin bed-clothes. Before the show starts, Mark Chaundy's excellent King Aegeus, unhealthily obsessed with Medea, skulks around this room that she and Jason have taken, sniffing the pillows and a discarded stiletto. When Madelaine Shaw's Medea and Stephen Wallace's Jason come running in, her voluptuousness is barely concealed in a bright red negligee, while he can't get his military kit off quickly enough before joining her for a romp in the bed.
The rapture of his first aria is, we are shown, more to do with Medea working her magic under the bed-clothes than in praise of any nobler emotion. Wallace's smoothly produced counter-tenor brought a lot of sensuousness to the role. It doesn't, however, seem to sit ideally for him, with some of passages lying too low for him to encompass in falsetto, making for a few uncomfortable gear shifts. He captures the weakness of the character well, though, and when Bessus, his Captain of the Guard, given gravitas by Jonathan May's resonant bass, complains to him that all this is distracting him from his mission, Jason too easily concedes that he is powerless in the face of love. This is not a hero, evidently, who has got where he is through iron will and determination.
The genius of Giasone, however, lies in the fact that Cavalli and his librettist Giacinto Cicognini's portrayal of their hero doesn't undermine the audience's involvement in the drama. It serves rather to intensify our sympathy for the wronged Hypsipile, Jason's wife and mother to his children, whom he's abandoned to pursue Medea. There's a lot of eye-rolling and tutting disapproval at Jason's misdeeds from the cast as a whole: from Bessus but also Joanne Boag as Hypsipile's long-suffering companion, Alinda. From her first entrance, Hypsipile is modestly dressed, arriving suitcases in tow as a very real embodiment of constancy. Throughout all the comedic comings and goings – Robert Burt's drag act as Delfa, Medea's confident, recast as hotel maid; Nicholas Sharratt's stammering hunchback, Demus – her genuine grievance lends the show emotional ballast.
None of the quest for the fleece is shown and the second act takes place after its successful completion, laying the groundwork for the final reconciliation, what the programme describes as the 'Hollywood ending'. Jason returns to his wife in a scene that packs an extraordinary emotional punch. Hypsipile's delicate, beautiful and moving lament – delivered with nobility and seductive tone by Sinéad Campbell – is watched by the assembled cast, Medea gradually welling up and Jason coming round to the realisation of his appallingly irresponsible behaviour. On paper it sounds contrived but Cavalli and Cicognini produce a scene of such immediacy and power that it's impossible not to be moved.
The other great scene, Medea's incantation at the end of Act One, fits a little less seamlessly into the production. Musically still a high-point – with Shaw's Medea wonderfully unhinged and Curnyn bringing fiercely focussed playing from his band – Constantine cleverly reimagines it as some sort of trip, the chorus of spirits embodied by men with large rabbit heads reminiscent of Donnie Darko. The scene itself loses none of its astonishing power, but in the updated setting cannot help feeling a little detached from the drama.
Some of the best singing of the evening came from Jonathan Brown as Orestes, Hypsipile's agent recast as private detective. He sings his first aria whilst gleefully plucking pieces of evidence from the scene of Jason's infidelity, but Brown's portrayal also hints at a genuine concern for his mistress's plight. However, the whole ensemble came together extremely well and the acting, scrutinised from every angle by an audience surrounding the stage at close proximity, was as committed and convincing as it had to be.
Giasone has something of a reputation among the cognoscenti and an aura of mystique enhanced by the rarity of René Jacobs' excellent recording from the late 80s. In Jacobs' version it runs to four hours, therefore to reduce it to a far more manageable two and a half has meant a fair number cuts, with the second and third acts melded together. However, in Ronald Eyre's witty and lucid translation and with Curnyn's fluid conducting, the action skips along beautifully, with little feeling of anything missing. The production might be cheap, mainly deliberately so, but the work's timeless message is all the more pertinent for it.
By Hugo Shirley
The final production of Opera at Iford 2008, Verdi's Un giorno di regno, opens 22 July. Visit the Iford Arts website here