HGO’s rewarding ensemble approach to Cavalli’s L’Egisto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cavalli, L’Egisto: Soloists, HGO Baroque Orchestra / Marcio da Silva (music director). The Cockpit, Marylebone, London, 5.6.2021. (MB)

Director, Lighting – Marcio de Silva
Assistant director – Madeline de Barrié
Designs – Christian Hey

Egisto – Martins Smaukstelis
Climene – Astrid Joos
Lidio – Alex Pullinger
Clori – Caroline Taylor
Hipparco – John Holland-Avery
Amore – Helen Lacey
Semele, Bellezza, Hora Seconda – Charity Mapletoft
Venere, Dedra, Hora Quarta – Oliva Carrell
Dema – Emily Kyte
Volupia, Didone, Hora Terza – Helen Daniels James
La Notte – Laurence Gillians

HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) led the way after the first lockdown with opera’s return to London, in the guise of an outdoor performance of Holst’s Sāvitri at Lauderdale House. Five miles or so away, at Marylebone’s Cockpit Theatre, it proved if not quite the earliest, then one of the earliest, to return to the fray this time round, with Francesco Cavalli’s (and Giovanni Faustini’s) L’Egisto of 1643.

The second of Cavalli’s collaborations with Faustini, L’Egisto proved influential and popular beyond Venice, travelling to Naples and many other nascent centres of opera across the Italian peninsula. It even travelled with Cavalli to Paris, to be performed in 1646 at the behest of Cardinal Mazarin, determined yet frustrated in his every attempt to establish Italian opera on a permanent basis in the French capital. (Mazarin would later commission Cavalli’s Ercole armante for Louis XIV’s marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain, though neither opera nor théâtre à machines was ready in time. It would be performed two years later, in 1662, Cavalli’s Xerse quickly substituted—and highly popular.) The renaissance in Cavalli’s fortunes, if not quite initiated by Raymond Leppard, then nonetheless incalculably in his debt, saw L’Egisto among the earlier Cavalli operas to return to the stage, Leppard realising the work for Santa Fe in 1974 and Scottish Opera eight years alter. Marcio da Silva, acting both as stage and music director, now gives a reading for our time, doubtless less lavish than Leppard’s, but our moment is hardly one given to lavish operatic presentation. Rightly or wrongly, it tends to favour ‘original instruments’ and a less ‘interventionist’ approach than what Jane Glover described, in her review of Leppard’s score, as ‘look[ing] upon the surviving material rather as a lump of modeller’s clay, which he [Leppard] moulds skilfully into shapes which he knows will please modern audiences. In so doing, he departs from original practice, often quite violently.’

There was certainly no such violence here, whether in the pit or on stage. Given in the round, the boundary was not in any case entirely distinct, though there was no dramatic mixing of function to match that combination of roles in our dual director’s case. The ebb and flow of the score and its realisation—or whatever we want to call it — by Marcio da Silva and Cédric Meyer very much complemented the scenic action, presented in some ways simply, yet far from neutrally. A small yet colourful band — harpsichord, organ, lute, baroque guitar, two violins, gamba, cello, two recorders, and sparingly employed percussion — did not suggest, at least not in this small, socially distanced theatre, that Cavalli’s music cried out for more. Rather, it furnished a crucial harmonic backdrop of imagination, against which the human voice could be heard and human gesture seen. If I cared less for the folk-like excursions now expected in early opera performances of a certain school, they were rare and clearly relished by the players, whose pleasure it would be churlish unduly to begrudge. With Sebastian Gillot, assistant music director, at the keyboard, much was possible and realised in aural tapestry, but also much was offered in support to the singers, the continuo ensemble flexible enough to be reinforced with a minimum of fuss where necessary.

A staging that relied on distance, on separation, and on mischief and anguish in their wake was doubtless developed with our current predicament in mind, yet fitted very well with a plot in which two couples, separated, must find, recognise, and learn to love one another again (though do they?) The passing of a single day, respecting the old dramatic unities, is symbolised by the passage of the sun above (this Egisto a descendant of Apollo, not the Aegisth we know from Elektra). Curtains of separation that could be seen through, or not, did much that was necessary. Singing to and past each other, touching or, more often, failing to do so, spoke to us clearly yet far from clinically. Touches of blood-red brought colour with dramatic impact predicated on an overall economy of means. Elements of cross-dressing reminded us of where Cavalli, much to Leppard’s sorrow, ended up: ‘plots … of such a ridiculous complexity that it is doubtful if anybody could ever have known, or cared, what was happening on the stage once the disguises had got under way’. But with Faustini, as Leppard remarked in the liner notes to his recording of L’Ormindo, Cavalli ‘responded to the best libretti with his best music’.

Ensemble of HGO’s L’Egisto (c) Laurent Compagnon

To make it so, of course, requires not only sensitive continuo realisation but also sensitive — and dramatic — vocal artistry. Here a number of singers excelled, showing considerable stage gifts too. Martins Smaukstelis was first among equals as Egisto, wounded, external heroism and inward anguish expressed by all manner of subtle gradations. Astrid Joos as Climene and Caroline Taylor as Clori offered complement and contrast in their soprano roles, expression lying very much within the precision of their performances. Helen Lacey’s Amore schemed and sulked by turn, vocally and visually. This was, however, very much an ensemble piece, with all involved, musical and directorial teams alike, contributing to the musico-dramatic whole. Recommended — even without the bonus of drinks brought to your seat. There are two, alternating casts; I saw the second.

Mark Berry

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