Monday 14 June 2021

17th century revival: HGO makes modern drama of Cavalli's early masterpiece, L'Egisto

Cavalli: L'Egisto - Helen May, Kieran White - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto - Helen May, Kieran White - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

Cavalli L'Egisto; Kieran White, Helen May, Eric Schlossberg, Shafali Jalota, Tom Kelly, Marcio da Silva, HGO at the Cockpit

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Young artists really bring to life this 17th-century tale of mismatched love

Cavalli's opera L'Egisto premiered in Venice in 1643. It was his seventh opera (of over forty though not all survive) and the second (of around a dozen) with librettist Giovanni Faustini. The opera quickly spread, bringing Cavalli fame not only in Italy but in Vienna and in France (where L'Egisto would be performed in as part of Cardinal Mazarin's unsuccessful campaign to make Italian opera popular in Paris).

Cavalli: L'Egisto - Shafali Jalota, Eric Schlossberg  - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto - Shafali Jalota, Eric Schlossberg
HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
As a young composer Cavalli was in the circle around Claudio Monteverdi when he created his late operatic masterpieces for the Venetian theatre and Cavalli was probably one the composers who helped the elderly master write I'Incoronazione di Poppea. But whilst Monteverdi (some 35 years older than Cavalli) was responsible for the first operatic masterpieces, it was Cavalli's career spanning 30 years writing for Venice's opera houses which effectively developed opera as a commercial art-form.

L'Egisto also had an important role in the development of Cavalli's reputation in the 20th century. After his ground breaking performances of Cavalli operas at Glyndebourne (L'Ormindo in 1967, La Calisto in 1970), Raymond Leppard conducted his own luxurious edition of L'Egisto at Santa Fe in 1972, and this edition would be used at Scottish Opera in 1982. There have been more recent productions, I saw it a Buxton in the 1990s, but the opera remains relatively unperformed.

This in itself is rather strange as the plot's concentration on the five lovers has a modern feel to it (with elements of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte). There is little of the madcap plotting or comic servants that characterise much 17th century Venetian opera, instead, Cavalli and Faustini give us scenes of the gods meddling in human affairs.

HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) presented a new production of Cavalli's L'Egisto at The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, directed by Marcio da Silva, who was also music director. The production was double cast and on Saturday 12 June 2021 we saw Kieran White as Egisto, Helen May as Climene, Eric Schlossberg as Lidio, Shafali Jalota as Clori, Tom Kelly as Hipparco and Stephanie Hershaw as Amore, with Rachel Allen, Ana Beard Fernandez, Anna-Luise Wagner, Emily Noon and James Berry. Designs were by Christian Hey. The work was performed in an edition by Marcio da Silva and Cedric Meyer. The accompanying instrumental ensemble consisted of harpsichord (Sebastian Gillot), lute (Cedric Meyer), violins (Edmund Taylor, Kirsty Main), viola da gamba (Kate Conway), cello (Jacob Garside), recorder (Joel Raymond) and percussion/recorder/guitar (Marcio da Silva).

The plot starts in media res, clearly Cavalli and Faustini were not interested in the action as such but simply the reactions of the lovers. Before opera starts, Egisto and Clori were in love, as were Lidio and Climene. Capture by pirates and other events conspire to bring Egisto and Climene together, and Clori and Lidio. When the opera opens, Egisto and Climene are together as friends, living with Climene's brother Hipparco, and both missing their lovers. However, on another part of the island Lidio and Clori are in love. The plot device that Faustini uses is that Lidio and Clori carve their names on trees, these love messages are seen by their original lovers, cue plot which is complicated by the fact that Hipparco (who rules the island) also loves Clori.

The action encompasses the original lovers trying to get back with their first partners (and failing), vows of vengeance from Hipparco and Climene, Climene's failure to be able to kill Lidio and Egisto's descent into madness. But punctuating this were scenes of the gods, who delight in manipulating the plot. Thanks to the intervention of Amore all is restored at the end, though Da Silva's production gave the ending a more uncertain ending. There is one servant figure, Dema an older woman whose role is to present an entirely different view of love and fidelity.

Cavalli and Faustini take a leisurely approach to the story telling, bidding us enjoy the moment rather than worrying about the destination. On a warm and very stuffy night in a rather uncomfortable theatre with around three hours of music, it was a testament to cast and instrumentalists' performances that they held our attention. 

Cavalli: L'Egisto - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

This was very much an ensemble performance, with each of the major cast members holding their own an creating a strong group ethos. Eric Schlossberg (Lidio) and Shafali Jalota (Clori) were wonderfully drippily in love, drifting in an out of the first two acts with a series of ravishing love duets. Their former lovers were somewhat sharper. Helen May's Climene ultimately joins with her brother Hipparco (Tom Kelly) in vowing vengeance, and May brought a nice pathos to the classic scene where she has Schlossberg's Lidio at her mercy but cannot manage to kill him. Tom Kelly was wonderfully vivid as Hipparco going through a range of emotions. Kieran White's Egisto, however, had the widest range to travel. White's high tenor encompassed the role's tessitura and he impressed both in his technical poise and his delivery, leading to the extended mad scene at the end. Anna-Luise Wagner made the most of Dema, bringing out the idea that fidelity was not the thing and you should have many lovers. By casting a young singer in the role, Da Silva neatly got over the original opera's problem of satirising an older woman.

Cavalli: L'Egisto - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto
HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Stephanie Hershaw was a delightful, albeit rather too feminine, Cupid, popping in and out of the action throughout the evening. The remaining cast played multiple roles as over the course of the evening we came across Venus and Fedra (Ana Beard Fernandez), Semele and Belleza (Rachel Allen), Volupia and Didone (Emily Noon), La Notte (James Berry) as well as the Hours and many more. Singers entered the action with a will, creating a series of highly vivid scenes.

Da Silva's production was largely abstract and very stylishly designed by Christian Hey, but I felt that they could have given us a bit more help in keeping track of the action. Dressing all four lovers in shades of grey seemed to invite confusion, and a degree of colour coding would have helped establish who was whom and who was with whom particularly in the scenes in Act Two when the original pairings briefly re-unite. Similarly, with its vast array of immortals, there was an element of 'who are these people now' at the beginning of each scene in heaven.

But what keeps the work going is the music, and there is so much that is simply delightful yet Cavalli always keeps moving. Set pieces are short and there is plenty of recitative which was delivered effectively and dramatically, clearly a lot of work had been done here. The instrumental ensemble conjured some wondrous sounds from amongst the small group, and made themselves a very effective part of the dramatic action.

The production was a triumph on many levels. Bringing 17th century opera to life, even an acknowledged masterwork such as L'Egisto, is not an easy task and HGO are to be congratulated on succeeding so well with a project which employed 22 singers over 10 performances at a time when the economic and logistics of such activity is challenging in the extreme.


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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for listing the instrumentalists too!


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