Cesti’s L’Orontea charms

15 Dec

There’s obviously a huge number of interesting operas from the first century of opera’s existence for us to explore and this autumn it’s been good to go Monteverdi and Cavalli and meet Luigi Rossi, Francesca Caccini and now Antonio Cesti – La nuova musica did his L’Orontea in a concert at the Wigmore Hall on 14th December.

Apparently this opera, with Cavalli’s Giasone (a lovely piece that ought to be done more often), was one of the most performed operas in the seventeenth century.  That didn’t stop its music being lost for more than two centuries until some manuscripts turned up. At this happy, energetic performance, I could see its appeal.

The plot feels like quite a lot of other seventeenth century comedies. Queen Orontea falls in love with a beautiful youth, Alidoro, who is almost murdered. So do all the other women in the cast. Orontea can’t marry him because he’s a penniless pauper – until it’s revealed that he’s really a prince. There are a couple of nice sub-plots for a pair of servants and Alidoro’s randy mother and some amusing commentary from a page and a drunk. It seems to move swiftly to a witty text (though whether as witty as the surtitles suggested, I couldn’t say).  There are some good situations and some constantly changing emotions.  These are believable, interesting characters.

Cesti’s music impressed me – swift recitatives move the plot along and there are some rather nice arias and duets, aptly suggesting the emotions. The accompaniment – just eight players – struck me as witty and great fun with some imaginative sounds mirroring the emotions and commenting.  I wished I could have understood the text better because I felt that, to an Italian audience, the enjoyment of the interaction between text and music would have been much greater. In the right venue and with a good English translation and a sensitive director, this could be just as much of a hit as any of Cavalli’s pieces.

The Wigmore Hall is a good venue: it’s the right sort of size and is considerably more comfortable and with much better sightlines than the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Perhaps the acoustic tends to favour the players over the singers – one or two seemed occasionally in danger of being drowned – or possibly David Bates’s conducting was a little too enthusiastic. This apart, the piece came across well. The characters were in varying degrees of costume and acted and interacted well – singing with the music but confident enough to make this feel like a dramatic presentation of an opera, not a simple concert.

The cast was pretty good. Anna Stephany made a glamorous, sultry Orontea, well able to manage the changeable emotions and displaying a voice that is fulfilling lots of the promise that I remember when I saw her in her early years here. I think that she could have made more of some of the arias, or possibly David Bates could have given her a little more latitude to do so. As the general love interest Jonathan McGovern was a nicely bewildered Alidoro – a character of Adonis-like beauty and a strong tendency to unattractive opportunism: he’s very happy to dump a servant he was in love with in order to be king. He sang really well displaying strength and doing the lyrical parts very beautifully.

Mary Bevan and Michal Czerniawski were very strong as the second couple – Silandra and Corindo – she glamorous and seductive, he much more lyrical and impassioned. Sam Furness stole the comedy honours as a dragged up Aristea – Alidoro’s mother. His timing, singing and acting were outstandingly good, suggesting an element of pathos as well as grotesqueness.  He really sang the piece and this suggested a very strong future, not just in character roles.   Christopher Turner as the page and Edward Grint as the drunk commented nicely and had their moments of fun. Mr Grint was probably the most understated drunk I’ve seen but rather engaging.

La Nuova Musica played with huge enthusiasm and seemed to be enjoying the opera as much as we were. As I’ve suggested, there were times when I wondered whether David Bates could not have kept them a little quieter and given the singers a little more leeway – not all the words came across and I felt that there might be more emotion in the music than we heard.

That’s a minor cavil.  This engaging, intelligent, committed performance helped a not-quite full Wigmore Hall enjoy a charming and very engaging comedy.  I’d like to see it staged and I’d also like to see more of Cesti’s operas.

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