David Fallis and the excellent musicians of the Toronto Consort present a delectable slice of opera from 17th century Venice on Friday and Saturday at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.
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It’s all tied in to Carnivale, the big party before the penitence of Lent.
People were not big travellers in the 17th century, but the world was already coming to Venice, a major commercial centre where traders from all known points of the probably-round Earth met. And if they arrived in late January and early February, they were immersed in a city jumping from party to party.
It was a cure for the midwinter blahs nominally tied in to the Church calendar.
A group of Italian composers in the late 16th century calling themselves the New School had begun to reimagine a form of musical theatre from Ancient Greece, where the meaning and impact of text was heightened with melody.
Claudio Monteverdi, the composer we think of as the father of opera, premiered L’Orfeo for the Duke of Mantua for the aristocrat’s private Carnivale celebrations in 1607.
For three decades, the enjoyment of opera was, in Fallis’s words, the purview of “counts and academics.”
Just like Toronto hipsters in 2013, sophisticated Venetians and their cosmopolitan visitors came looking for something fresh every year, and the novelty of opera turned into boffo box office.
Fallis recounts how a theatre troupe came through Venice during Carnivale season in 1637, giving the public its first taste of opera. “It was such a hit that, the next year, there were two operas, and that’s when the locals became involved.”
Being a commercial centre — Venice and Naples were Europe’s biggest cities at the turn of the 17th century — anything that made money was fair game. And opera was a hot ticket.
The city’s first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, had opened in 1637. By the end of the century, Venice had 10 of them. That made for a lot of competition for the best voices, best instrumentalists and best composers.
Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was considered in his day as the greatest of Venice’s opera composers. His primary job was as organist at St Mark’s Cathedral, but he took a financial gamble by investing in the Teatro San Cassiano and writing operas for it, a venture that made him into a rich man.
“To turn a buck was part of the Venetian ethos,” smiles Fallis.
And you can’t please a crowd without making them laugh as well as cry. So the operas for the people were not quite as serious as those of Monteverdi that have survived. Cavalli’s operas also began the evolution from pieces dominated by recitative-style singing into operas with distinct recitatives and arias.
Cavalli, who was still finding his feet as an opera composer, wrote his second one, Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne (The Loves of Apollo and Daphne), for the 1640 Carnivale. His librettist was also a newcomer to opera, the poet Giovanni Francesco Busenello. Their tragicommedia centred around a love triangle drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
“The old story is handled cheekily in this opera,” Fallis explains. However, as in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the most deep and powerful music comes in the form of lament — two of them in this instance.
“One is Apollo lamenting Daphne,” says Fallis. The other comes in a sub-plot where Procris decries her philandering husband Cephalus.
That second big aria is being sung by mezzo Laura Pudwell, a master at delivering deeply expressed lamentation.
Fallis has assembled an excellent vocal cast that includes a return to Toronto by British lyric tenor Charles Daniels to sing the role of Apollo. The rest of the cast includes sopranos Michelle DeBoer and Katherine Hill, and tenors Bud Roach and Kevin Skelton.
The Duke of Mantua had a large orchestra on staff, but the penny-wise commercial theatre operators had to be more economical with their freelance musicians, meaning that Fallis hasn’t had to go out looking for sackbut players for these two concerts.
Fallis did, however, have to invest in a performable version of the opera.
“We’re very lucky that Cavalli sat down at the end of his life to commission clean copies of all his opera scores,” says Fallis. “He clearly thought they might have some value one day.”
Busenello published the libretto in a collection of poetry (Fallis says this is how a librettist typically made money in the day, as they would not necessarily have been paid for the operatic work, specifically).
University of Toronto’s music library happens to have a photographic reproduction of a fair copy of Apollo and Daphne. But it still needed to be cleaned up and expanded for a group of 21st century performers. With both Busanello and Cavalli’s originals in hand, Fallis turned to Tafelmusik’s Charlotte Nediger to meticulously create a working score.
There were missing ritornelli (orchestral interludes between scenes) in a couple of spots, so Fallis has written his own — “hopefully in the style of,” he smiles.
Fallis conducts the Toronto Consort and guests in a purely concert version, with a few nips and tucks to keep the running time reasonable, at Trinity St Paul’s on Friday and Saturday. For ticket details, click here.
For a taste of the music, here is Alessandra Càpici singing the Lamento di Procri from an Italian production of The Loves of Apollo and Daphne last year: