Bawdy, siily, trashy and a great deal of fun. That is what is in store for you when you view Il Giasone, the "smash hit" of Francisco Cavalli. The opera opened at the Teatro Cassiano on January 5, 1648 (=1649) in Venice and soon after was being played all over the rest of Italy. It was the most oftened played opera in the 17th century and became the symbol of Venetian decadence. It was however, a milestone in the development of the opera form as it saw the final separation of the aria and the recitative. The latter served for action and commentary and the aria served for formal song and intense reflection on events that have or may happen.
A few words on history will clarify this importance. As an art form, "opera" (initially called "favola") was invented by a committee in Florence, Italy about 1600(Dafne by Peri & Corsi 1598, mostly lost was the first opera)as a means to unify drama and music. The Humanist movement of the Renaissance thought that the Greeks had used a form of sing/speech in presenting their dramas on stage (probably wrong) and at that time in Western culture sung music and choral music were polyphonic: many voices sing the same words at different times. The committee (called the Camarata) came up with one line of sung words (monody)with music accompanying it so that the listener could follow the story. In the almost fifty years that followed different schools of thought on the development of opera had arisen in the various Italian cities. For example in Rome heavy ponderous philosophical and ecclesiastical operas were favored e.g. Landi "Il Sant' Alessio". In Mantua pure beauty of voice and instrument in Monteverdi, the first great opera composer. In Venice it would take a different course. Up to this time it had also remained the entertainment of nobility and clergy playing at court for fairly small audiences. These were big productions with choruses, many musicians sometimes with much machinery and settings. Cavalli had written one of these big numbers in his first opera "Le Nozze di Teti e di Peleo" in 1639. However there was a great change afoot in Venice. This city was a Republic and was the first to open opera performances to the general public. These public theaters not only became numerous but profitable. But this public wanted comedic situations, less grandiose productions and liked a little titillation and risque dialog. Cavalli thus started writing more "popular" operas to appeal to the mass audience. He produced some forty manuscripts though not all were presented as the tastes of the audience were changing and new composers arriving.
In Il Giasone Cavalli has given us a complex story involving sexual encounters of various persons from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. We have the affair of Jason with the queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle who has twin sons by him and then the affair with Medea (no child murders here)queen of Colchis on the Black sea. She also has twin sons by him. The very funny plot involves which of the ladies he will marry. There are numerous other exagerated and comedic characters and the opera is best thought of as a "romp" without serious overtones. It is fun! You'll need several viewing to put it altogether.
Francesco Cavalli was born February 14 11602. His father was a musician and composer Giovanni Battista Caleti- Bruni in the Lombard town of Crema. The Venetian governor (podesta)of Crema Frederigo Cavalli saw in the boy musical talent and sponsored him to the cappella of St Marks in Venice. Later in life the boy took the name of his patron as Fransico Cavalli. At St Marks he was a pupil of the first great opera composer, Claudio Monteverdi who taught him music and composition. Cavalli was a gifted composer himself and wrote much fine church music. His fame came however from is increasing output of popular opera.