An Early, Operatic Gem: Cavalli's 'Veremonda'

woo-1622-veremonda-storyWhen discussion turns to the earliest days of opera, in 17th-century Italy, the composer who most often comes to mind is Claudio Monteverdi -- and with good reason. His Orfeo, from 1607, is the earliest opera still heard routinely in today's theaters, and he was surely the earliest composer to fully exploit opera's phenomenal potential as a still new form of art.

Yet, for fans of early opera, Monteverdi poses a vexing problem: He just didn't leave us much. Monteverdi wrote a great deal of music, but only three of his full-scale operas have survived: Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, and his final opera, The Coronation of Poppea.

Fortunately, though, opera quickly became big business. Wealthy families began operating their own theaters, vying for the best operatic talent, and staging productions for an eager, ticket-buying public. Before long, plenty of other composers were at work in Italy's theaters -- writing dramas with a far better survival rate. And there was one composer in particular, Francesco Cavalli, who left us a veritable treasure trove of early opera.

Cavalli was born in 1602, a generation or so after Monteverdi. As he reached his late 30's both he and Monteverdi were at work in the theaters of Venice, where Monteverdi's Poppea premiered in 1643. By that time, Cavalli already had a dozen or so operas under his belt, and he went on to write about 30 altogether, most of which have survived.

Many early, Venetian operas -- including many of Cavalli's -- were written for the carnival season, so their subject matter was often tailored to audiences in high spirits. For example, one of Cavalli's most popular operas, both then and now, is Calisto, which tells a story of philandering gods who get involved in some fairly kinky, earthly romances.

The opera featured here, Cavalli's Veremonda, L'Amazzone di Aragona, features another dramatic subject apparently popular with Venetian opera-goers -- the conflict between European and Moorish cultures. It also features a heavy dose of romantic intrigue, adding a bit of erotic spice to the story's wartime intrigues.

Interestingly, Cavalli's opera takes a fairly open-minded approach to moral values, sexual politics and gender roles, perhaps in line with the "anything goes" spirit of carnival time. Though, not surprisingly, the story does present a distinctly Euro-centric view of the clash between cultures -- an attitude typical of operas not just at that time, but for centuries to come.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Cavalli's Veremonda from the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux stars in the title role, in a production featuring New York Baroque Incorporated, led by conductor Aaron Carpenè.