From its premier in Innsbruck in 1656, Cesti’s Orontea became one of the most popular operas of the time. And why? Because sex sells! This opera contains gentle wooing, scenes of headstrong amorous moves and raunchy bedroom frolics. And it is all in the text - which was projected as English titles to the sung Italian. Pleasingly the entire libretto was also in the program. Given a brilliant book by his second generation playwright Cicognini, Cesti adds melody, original orchestration, arias and duets to move the new art of opera ahead several steps.
This performance proves that good opera does not require big casts, large orchestra or even a traditional proscenium stage. The cut-down orchestra of 9 members made for a wonderful continuo using traditional 17th century instruments. Each of the ten singers had substantial and interesting voices and all were tasked with portraying serious dramatic development in the complex tragi-comic plot. The two non-singing roles were also crucial to the drama … the muse cupid, played by Ryan Smith, being on stage for the entire performance, even hanging from a high trapeze before the audience had filed in. He grinned continuously at his hapless amorous victims while also doing cartwheels amongst his other complex choreography.
Anna Dowsley played our heroine superbly, at first aloof to love then as involved as everyone else. Jonathan Abernethy played the desirable but apparently lowly born artist Alidoro who conveniently travels with his mother Aristea (Dominica Matthews) from the Phoenician court.
Playing the drunk is one of the challenges of the stage and basso Andrew O’Connor pulled off this feat with aplomb. He handled at least 20 bottles of wine during the performance, taking a solo dreaming sleep scene in total control while seemingly severely drunk. And amongst his fine deep basso singing he also hit two forte falsetto notes which would have shamed many a coloratura soprano! And there were other ‘party tricks’, even a sailor-boy strip scene, double couple coitus interruptus and more.
We welcomed the return of bass David Greco as Creonte. He may be the only member of cast who is remotely sensible, reflecting on events worldly. His brother Matthew is, in real life, first violinist and a permanent fixture of the company.
The part of Corindo was written for a castrato. I was pleased that the company chose not to automatically use a counter-tenor. None of us will ever know for sure the sound that castrati made but it is unlikely to be like what we hear from most counter-tenors today. Douglas Kelly sang and acted a fully believable lover with his fine tenor voice and matching physique.
For those who are followers of G&S, this opera plot has the essence of Patience at the start and HMS Pinafore at the end. There is also a sense of the ‘Slave of Duty’ from Pirates as well in the Queen’s resolve. ‘Nothing is new in the world’.
The sets and settings were many and varied but piece de resistance perhaps was when the rear curtains opened to reveal a part-finished tableau ready for royalty’s likeness. Our artist hero had palette in hand with his model Silandra in amorous mood painting each other’s bodies in ecstasy. The rival, Queen Orontea then makes a dramatic entrance by slashing through the unfinished canvas to catch the lovers and claim her own prize, the ever desirable and desired Alidoro.
Pinchgut ‘prime mover’ Maestro Erin Helyard received a huge ovation along with his bespoke orchestra and talented cast.
Highly recommended if you can get a ticket.
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..