Hampstead Garden Opera has returned to the stage with a production of a rarely-performed baroque opera from 1643 by Francesco Cavalli. Hampstead Garden Opera wisely invited baroque specialist Marcio da Silva to direct and the result is a triumph. Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi, was an important figure in Venetian opera and, as his fame grew, he took his operas around Europe – but not to England where the Civil War and the puritan ascendancy had outlawed the art form.
The opera is a typical example of Venetian baroque with gods, goddesses, and mortals involved in a convoluted story of kidnap, escape love, betrayal, and reconciliation. The tale of two pairs of star-crossed lovers – and the divinities who harass them from crisis to crisis – bears a remote resemblance to the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but many of the plot devices are specific to the conventions of mid-seventeenth century Venice. That da Silva and his wonderful cast manage to bring this 400-year-old piece so vividly to life is nothing short of astounding.
Egisto and his lover Clori have been captured by pirates and separated. In captivity, Egisto meets Climene, who was separated from her lover Lidio on their wedding day, and they eventually escape together to the island of Zakynthos where they find that their erstwhile partners are now a couple. After a series of trials and temptations, engineered by the goddess Venus, who is hostile to Egisto, Apollo intervenes and persuades Cupid to re-unite the original couples.
The performing space at the Cockpit is surrounded on three sides by seating. The production was designed to cope with the demands of social distancing but, after an early sense of unease and disconnection, the spell of the music and of the compelling performances in every role, even the minor ones, draws us into the drama. Indeed, the hanging transparent sheets that dominate the setting double as a way of protecting the singers and symbolising the separation of the lovers. And it would be wrong to overlook the comic moments, particularly those involving Semele, Dido, and Fedra, which work very well and were audibly enjoyed by the audience on the night that I saw the opera.
With such a large cast (and noting that there are two casts singing on alternate nights) it seems harsh to single out individual performances but special words of praise are due for countertenor Eric Schlossberg’s tormented Lidio, and for Helen May as Climene – her expertise in the art of bringing baroque soprano roles to life grows with each outing. As Egisto, tenor Kieran White’s mad scene is a tour de force and Shafali Jalota’s Clori is well sung and portrays the shifting emotions of the ambivalent lover with style.
Marcio da Silva’s deep love for baroque opera shines through the production – and playing half a dozen instruments he is a key part of the excellent band of musicians who bring Cavalli’s score to life. A rare gem polished to a brilliant shine – congratulations to Hampstead Garden Opera.