Anyone who gets hot under the collar about opera directors who take familiar works and put their own idiosyncratic spin on them should look to the baroque composers to see that it's far from unprecedented. The early opera period was rife with contemporary re-working of old themes that had very little to do with the intentions of the originators.
If he'd turned a blind eye to the numerous dance extravaganzas, Euripides might have just about recognized his tragedy Medea from Marc-Antoine Charpentier's version, presented by English National Opera earlier this year, but he wouldn't have known what he was seeing with Cavalli's 1649 Il Giasone, which bears virtually no resemblance to classical legend. Apart from the names of the characters, little remains of the original source material; in fact, it's closer to the situation of Dido and Aeneas, with Jason (he of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece) lured to leave his new bride to go off on manly adventures.
His master Monteverdi may have produced greater masterpieces but Francesco Cavalli is perhaps the most consistently enjoyable of the early Venetians and Jason was one of the most successful operas of the 17th Century. His tenth opera, it was presented numerous times in the second half of the century before disappearing into relative obscurity.
The libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini (translated here by Ronald Eyre) has Jason marry the sorceress Medea, while being pursued by his banged-up wife Isiphile, who he ruthlessly tries to dispatch, only to be reunited with her while Medea meekly accepts the situation and turns back to her erstwhile lover Egeus. Nothing of avenging fury here.
Hannah Pedley flaunts rich tones and sexy curves to great effect as Medea, and Jason, a man who keeps his boots on even on his wedding night, is given a certain tyrannical charm by counter-tenor Clint van der Linde. Honours go to Royal College of Music student Peter Aisher, making his professional debut as an impressive stand-in for indisposed Stuart Haycock, as the crooked, strangely stammering servant Demus, and there's strong support from John-Colyn Gyeantey (Egeus), Piotr Lempa (Orestes) and ETO stalwart Andrew Slater as the pugnacious Hercules.
Director Ted Huffman under-plays the farcical elements of the work, although the tipping of the wrong victim into the sea has a certain humour. Michael Czerniawski is a rather dour Delfa and the fun inherent in a drag nurse (a tradition familiar from works such as Monteverdi's Poppea and Cavalli's own La Calisto) isn't fully exploited. Catrine Kirkman is sweet-toned as the wronged Isiphile, the perfect foil to Pedley's darker-voiced Medea.
It's no disrespect to the onstage performers to say that much of the evening's joy comes from the lively account of the inventive score by The Old Street Band, theorbos and all, under Joseph McHardy's sprightly baton.
Details of ETO's autumn tour, where Jason is joined by Handel's Agrippina and Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, can be found at here.