NEWS published on 09 Mar 2017

Euroradio Season: Leonardo García Alarcón brings Baroque opera back to life

Euroradio Season: Leonardo García Alarcón brings Baroque opera back to life
Leonardo García Alarcón (photo credit: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Fascinated by the mutual influences among different schools of music in the Mediterranean basin, the Argentinian conductor Leonardo García Alarcón founded the ensemble Cappella Mediterranea in 2005.

In the past few years, he and his artists have focussed in particular on operas by such Italian Baroque composers as Francesco Cavalli and Michelangelo Falvetti. They have almost singlehandedly brought to light forgotten works in imaginative stagings and featuring outstanding casts.

Now Euroradio listeners will be able to share in the pleasure of discovering this long-neglected repertory. Cavalli's Il Giasone, first performed in Venice in 1649, is based on the romantic adventures of the Greek mythological character Jason, famed for capturing the Golden Fleece. Recorded by Euroradio Member Swiss Radio (RTS), the new production of this sparkling work by the Grand Théâtre of Geneva at its Opéra des Nations is being broadcast by 20 EBU radio organizations on Saturday, 11 March, under MUS reference EURO/2016-2017/O/017.

In a recent interview, Maestro Alarcón explained the enormous enthusiasm generated by his group's ground-breaking productions throughout Europe and the Americas by noting that "Baroque opera is all about the capacity to transform us. […] Music is like religion: it must be capable of changing our hearts. […] There's something about Cavalli's music that appeals to our most immediate emotions."

Read the whole interview below.

Q & A

Q: You're the founding director of the Cappella Mediterranea. What led you back in 2005 to take a fresh look at Baroque music in the Mediterranean basin?

A: It was something quite natural and spontaneous when I arrived in Europe from Argentina in 1997. I immediately felt a very strong affinity with Portugal in general, and Lisbon in particular, and I travelled around looking at manuscripts. I had had no idea, for instance, that Lisbon was so closely connected with Naples. I studied the scores of many Neapolitan operas in Lisbon, and I read about what was going on in the 16th and 17th centuries not only there, but also in Madrid and South America, and I saw how New Spain, the Spanish Empire, had influenced Latin American music.

What is perhaps less generally known is that musicians north of the Alps were also greatly impacted by the Neapolitan School, even someone like C.P.E. Bach, for instance. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Naples was the cradle, or at least one of the cradles, of modern music. And it certainly exercised a decisive influence on the origins of Latin American music.

We initiated our research on what was happening at this time in Italy and Southern Europe, but also in North Africa. We remarked to what an extent Western culture is a product of the Mediterranean basin, and not only its music. The arts, the sciences, mathematics, all these were given very strong impetus from the lands around the Mediterranean.

As you know, Naples and Sicily were always at the crossroads of various civilizations, and they found themselves invaded by just about everyone, including the Vikings (Normans), then France, Aragon and finally Spain. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Naples and Sicily were under Spanish and Hapsburg domination, before finally becoming part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. So Spanish and Portuguese cultural elements were integrated into the Neapolitan School, which numbered such composers as Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico, Pergolesi, Francesco Provenzale, Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Vinci and many others, including Niccolò Piccinni, whose operas were widely given and challenged the aesthetics of Gluck.

Even Johann Sebastian Bach, who never travelled south of the Alps, could not escape this influence in his sacred and chamber music, and towards the end of his life, in 1747, he conducted Pergolesi's Stabat mater in Leipzig. After his stay in Italy, Handel also incorporated certain elements in his oratorios and operas in England.

Venice was also marked by the Neapolitan School. Francesco Cavalli, who trained and worked with Monteverdi, was a friend of Provenzale, and they even wrote an opera together. Naturally, the Venetians had their own opera, but Monteverdi, notably in The Coronation of Poppea, and Cavalli soon appropriated the new forms from Naples in their works. The influence of Naples on the music of the 17th and 18th centuries was very widespread. When Mozart went to Naples, he said the music there reminded him exactly of what he could hear in Salzburg and Vienna!

Q: Yet with your ensemble, you did not even tackle opera until 2013, with Cavalli's Elena. Why did you wait so long?

A: It's true, before Elena, I did only one opera, in 2006. I waited a long time because our ensemble simply wasn't ready for opera. Not only that, I had founded the group out of nothing, and opera is expensive. Now, we are supported by foundations and institutions in France and Switzerland, but at the start, no. Even if I had wanted to do opera, I wouldn't have been able to because of financial and administrative issues.

Q: Cappella Mediterranea has virtually singlehandedly helped us rediscover the operas of Cavalli – Il Giasone, but also Erismena and Eliogabalo. Tell us how you came to revive this long-forgotten repertory.

A:  I was able to do many operas with Gabriele Garrido and his Ensemble Elyma, and in particular La Calisto by Cavalli. I immediately fell in love with his music, his rhythms, his melodies. I didn't feel this attraction towards other composers, including Monteverdi.

For me, Monteverdi is another style: it's pure Mannerism. He is the Michelangelo of music, because he took the music of the Renaissance and he deformed it. Monteverdi does not have the same natural gift for melody as Cavalli: his inspiration is rational, almost mathematical. He composed his operas slowly because he knew that he was creating a new style. By contrast, writing music came as naturally as breathing to Cavalli, who was a man of the theatre. Monteverdi was a man of the court and the church who was actually persuaded by his students to write opera, but it's court music, much more thought out and less lyrical than Cavalli.

Q: What then are the similarities and the differences between Cavalli's musical theatre and Monteverdi's?

A: Cavalli's musical language is not just for connoisseurs. For instance, he never used chromaticism, but rather simple, diatonic melodies (based on the octave). His melodies are simple, never deformed, like Monteverdi's. Cavalli's music is more classical and does not seek out extremes in emotion. That's why I recorded The Seven Deadly Sins, a compilation of Monteverdi operatic excerpts focused on these extremes. It was the best tribute I could pay to this philosopher! Cavalli, on the other hand, is interested in entertaining his audiences –  sensuality, eroticism, comedy, humour, love – but without the philosophical aspect. He was a man of the theatre.

Q: What were your artistic and theatrical criteria in preparing your edition of Il Giasone?

A: Completely practical, to begin with. There are two editions from the period, one from St Mark's in Venice and one from Vienna. I decided to base myself on the 1649 original, done by one of Cavalli's copyists. I had to reconstruct the entire instrumental score: obviously, the vocal parts existed. But at the time, the instrumental accompaniment was almost entirely improvised, even the bass continuo. The musicians knew what to play, they knew how to improvise, like jazzmen. Now can you imagine such a thing, for instance, for the big storm scene in Il Giasone, and what that means for the staging?

Nowadays, we're used to the sound of a full orchestra, but in Venice, there would have been only the harpsichord, the violone and two violins. Don't forget that Cavalli had to pay for everything himself, including the musicians, and if he hired too many, he went bankrupt! Basically, he was the impresario. Not only that, but the violin at the time was not considered an aristocratic instrument. Violinists were tavern musicians and were paid as such. The theatres in Venice were like taverns themselves, very small, with lots going on at once: people eating, talking, flirting.

Q: You have just scored a huge success at the Opéra des Nations in Geneva with Cavalli's Il Giasone. How do you explain the enthusiastic reception everywhere for Cappella Mediterranea's productions of Cavalli's operas?

A: It's all about the capacity of Baroque music to transform us: the director, the singers, the stagehands, and finally, the audience. It's exactly what Cavalli and Monteverdi were looking for at the time. Music is like religion, it must be capable of changing our hearts. I arrived in Geneva and found people who were not at all working as a group, and I immediately set about bringing them together. The texts also play a role here, especially working with the singers on them. You go home with this music and these words in your head, and you live with them all day long. Of course, you could say that about any music, but there's something about Cavalli that appeals to our most immediate emotions: desire, suffering, jealousy. I think these serve as a catharsis, almost as a means of purification, within a group. And I've seen how in my productions the artists' own emotions are communicated to the audience.

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