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Restoring a Hit

A new edition of Cavalli’s Egisto

by Roger Brunyate

Egisto program

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by Roger Brunyate

According to Ellen Rosand in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Francesco Cavalli’s Egisto (1643) was “a staple of the opera companies that traveled up and down the Italian peninsula in the 17th century [and]… one of the most successful operas of the time.” To explore the secret of that success, the Peabody Chamber Opera will present two staged concert performances of the opera in the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall on Wednesday and Thursday, February 23 and 24 [2000]. The opera will be given in a new edition by musical director Webb Wiggins and myself.

  Pietro da 
Cortona: the Golden Age
The Golden Age
Painting by Pietro da Cortona (1646)
Why a new edition? By the 1640s, when opera first blossomed as a public entertainment in Venice, new theaters were opening every year, and a handful of composers were scrambling to satisfy the new craze. While the libretti for these operas were often printed, the music was notated in the simplest form possible, on two lines of score: the vocal part and a bass. This did not mean that only one instrument would play, however; several instruments would share in the accompaniment, handing off between them to vary the color and texture according to the progress of the drama. Although there are places in the scores which are notated in full for a string ensemble, for the most part the accompanying instruments (known as the continuo) would improvise their parts much like contemporary jazz musicians.

For a long while, this skill was lost. When Raymond Leppard reintroduced the works of Cavalli to modern audiences with his production of Ormindo at Glyndebourne in 1966 (and in his edition of Monteverdi’s Poppea two years earlier) he was aiming to make the scores playable by a pit orchestra. So, while a large variety of early instruments were used, the element of improvisation was eliminated almost entirely, the parts being written out (or “realized”) in a fixed meter which could be controlled by a conductor. Leppard’s editions also involved the transposition of countertenor and castrato parts to make them available to modern singers, some cutting and reordering of material, and even writing in additional parts to create ensembles to suit the taste of audiences who knew nothing earlier than Mozart.

Leppard’s editions were hugely popular at the time. Since I had known him somewhat from when we had adjacent rooms at Cambridge (he on the faculty, I as a student) and had overlapped with him at Glyndebourne, his work was also a great influence on my own taste. Many of the seventeenth-century operas that we did at Peabody in the eighties and early nineties — The Coronation of Poppea and Cavalli’s Calisto and Ormindo — were given in his editions. But times have changed; the music of the baroque, renaissance, and even middle ages has become popular with ordinary listeners; and a new generation of professionals has rediscovered the art of improvisation in the appropriate style. When I came to stage Poppea again at the Walters Art Gallery in 1994, conductor Kenneth Slowik persuaded me to return to the original score. The production was a success, and I was an overnight convert. The succession of short operas by Monteverdi, Charpentier, Purcell, and Rameau that I have done since at the Walters with Webb Wiggins (who, like Slowik, has also been associated with the chamber music program of the Smithsonian) have essentially been a continuation of that same aesthetic.

While most of the other operas mentioned have appeared in other scholarly editions, Egisto is available only in the version prepared by Leppard for the Santa Fe Opera in 1974. So we had to return to the original manuscripts, two of which survive. One, in the Marciana library in Venice, is a fair copy in a beautiful hand, probably made by an amanuensis engaged by Cavalli to assemble his collected works shortly before his death. The other, from the national library in Vienna, is a different matter. Hastily written, full of crossings-out and additional notes scribbled into the margins, it is an excellent record of the creative fury that must have attended the production of one of these operas, as the material was reworked for a new cast in a new city and musical decisions were made on the fly.

A page from 
the Venice MS
A page from the Venice MS of Egisto
showing the opening of Lidio's first aria
The aim of our edition is to be as simple as possible. We are elucidating and translating the Italian text (with the invaluable help of Franca Gorraz, the Opera Department’s Italian coach). We are transcribing the music in modern clefs and time-signatures, but otherwise leaving it exactly as it was written. We are suggesting possible cuts (many of which we will make in our own performance, since the stamina of those audiences was greater than our own), but nevertheless printing the music intact. And above all, we are leaving the simple bass line unadorned, as in the original. The elaboration of the accompaniment in performance will be left to the improvisation of Webb Wiggins and his musicians, who have already proved with last season’s production of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum their ability to conjure music and drama out of the simplest materials.

What is this Egisto to be worth all this labor? The interest is not contained in the plot, which is one of those stock Italian standbys, curiously similar to the situation in Haydn’s La fedeltà premiata performed at Peabody some years ago. Before the opera began, there were two couples: Egisto and Clori, lovers on the Greek island of Delos, and Lidio and Climene, betrothed to one another on the island of Zacynthos. But by the starot of the opera, both couples have been separated. Egisto and Clori were captured by pirates. Clori was brought to Zacynthos and left there. At the same time, the pirates also captured Climene from Zacynthos, who thus ended up in captivity on the same island as Egisto. Just before the action begins, Egisto has helped Climene to escape and has escorted her back to her home, where she hopes to be reunited with Lidio. What neither realizes is that in the meantime Lidio has fallen in love with Clori….

Harmon as Egisto and Maija Lisa Currie as Clori
Egisto and Clori
Kenneth Harmon and Maija Lisa Currie
Anyway, Act I of the opera establishes the situation of these two mismatched couples: Lidio and Clori as lovers, and Egisto and Climene as friends; this is further complicated by the fact that Climene’s brother Ipparco desires Clori also, and swears vengeance against Lidio. In Act II, Egisto and Climene each try to re-approach their former lovers only to be cruelly rejected. In Act III, the couples are finally reunited, but only as the result of a traumatic event in each case: Lidio is captured by Ipparco, who tells Climene to kill him, which she finds herself unable to do; and Egisto goes mad, but his suffering finally softens Clori’s heart.

While the plot is utterly artificial, the extremes of joy and despair are depicted with haunting immediacy. The opera is rich in arias and duets, expressing happiness, rage, and sorrow. But many of the most intense scenes — such as the double rejections in Act II or Egisto’s madness in Act III — are told through Cavalli’s extraordinary recitative. Indeed, one of the main arguments for preparing an authentic edition is the flexibility and pace which it restores to these key dramatic moments.

There is, of course, a mythological component as well. Egisto is supposed to be a descendant of the sun-god Apollo, and his rejection and eventual restoration is seen variously as an allegory of night and day or the cycle of the seasons. But the real reason for the introduction of immortal characters into the work is to give a taste of the comedy that is never far from a Cavalli opera. At the end of Act I, the goddesses of Beauty and Voluptuousness are arguing cattily with Cupid about their respective influence, when Venus comes in and persuades Cupid to see to it that Egisto (the offspring of Apollo whom she hates) does not get back together with Clori. Cupid’s machinations may be seen behind the contretemps of Act II, but by the end of that act we see him being set upon by Dido, Hero, Phaedra, and Semele, four heroines who have died for love and are determined to make Cupid pay for it. He is rescued by Apollo on condition that he sets things right, which basically constitutes the action of Act III. Further comedy is introduced on an entirely mortal plane by Ipparco’s servant Dema, one of those elderly female characters played by a tenor in drag, who explains to the audience in great detail the amatory antics she got up to in her younger days!

The one element of the original production style which we are not attempting to revive at Peabody is the use of elaborate stage machinery, which was to become such a characteristic of baroque opera. As with our productions at the Walters Art Gallery, we shall present Egisto very simply, with the instrumentalists sharing the stage with the singers. However, given the costumes of John Lehmeyer, the lighting of Douglas Nelson, the acting of the singers, and Cavalli’s infinitely flexible and dramatic music, we hope it will show some of the reasons for the opera’s popularity three and a half centuries ago.

Guercino's Aurora
Guercino's Aurora ceiling in Rome
Another treatment of the Apollo/Sun theme in baroque art (1622)

The above essay was reprinted, slightly altered, in the program for the Peabody production. The program note also included the two paragraphs which are appended below.

The key element of early 17th-century opera is its flexible and expressive approach to recitative, making it possible for text to be declaimed in a manner close to natural speech, but with heightened emotional effect. All the most dramatic moments in Egisto — especially the two rejection scenes in Act II and the even more touching scenes in which the lovers come together again in Act III — are set mainly in recitative, accompanied by only a very few instruments. That is not to say that more regularly metered music does not occur. There are short snatches of tune in almost every scene to underline a point or intensify an emotion. However, the more extended passages of lyrical singing are mostly confined to the appearances of the immortals, the numerous love scenes, or the many solo scenes (whether comic or tragic) that punctuate the main action. Especially notable among these are the two great lamenti in Act II, one for Egisto at the start of the act, and the other for Climene (a magnificent passacaglia) following Lidio's rejection of her.

The most famous episodes in Egisto, however, are the two mad scenes for the title character in Act III, in which he imagines himself a second Orpheus descending to the underworld to snatch back his Persephone (Clori). Even reduced in length as they are in this performance, they still offer a remarkable combination of textual and musical images, fragments of arioso interspersed with recitative, violence and pathos, and a truly heroic sense of scale. Nothing could better illustrate the extraordinary flexibility of operatic writing in the mid-seventeenth century.

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