Egisto (1643): Francesco Cavalli

★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at The Cockpit Theatre, 4 June 2021)

In many ways, the plot of Egisto sounds like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four young lovers are forced to confront the fickleness of the human heart while, behind the scenes, supernatural forces use them as pawns in a divine rivalry. Here, though, the antagonists are not fairy royals but gods: Venus and Apollo; and Cupid, not Puck, is the meddler who both provokes and resolves the chaos. There the similarities end, for Egisto also includes pirates (tangentially), a descent into hell (brief) and a mad scene, which makes for an eccentric piece of early Baroque. First performed in 1643 it was Cavalli’s seventh opera and the second which he produced with his long-time collaborator, the librettist Giovanni Faustini (also responsible for Ormindo, Calisto and, at least in part, Elena). It hasn’t often been performed in modern times, and Hampstead Garden Opera have bravely chosen it to kick off their post-Covid programming, performing it at the Cockpit Theatre in North London until 13 June. A variety of captivating voices among the young cast made it an engrossing first foray out into live opera: my first since March 2020.

I mentioned pirates, didn’t I? There’s a fair bit of backstory to Egisto which needs to be understood, in order to tease out the full story of betrayal and heartache that ensues. Let’s backtrack to a year before the events of the opera, and meet two young couples. On the island of Delos, Egisto and his beloved Clori are walking together on the beach, on the night before their wedding, when a band of pirates captures them, carrying them both off into slavery and selling them separately. In his new master’s house, Egisto meets Climene, princess of Zakynthos, who suffered a similar fate on the night before her wedding to her fiancé Lidio (one must admire the pirates’ timing). A year passes. Egisto and Climene become firm friends, but no more than that, and eventually manage to escape from their captors. Ever the gentleman, Egisto escorts Climene back to Zakynthos, where he plans to return her to Lidio before going in search of his own lost Clori. Little do they know, however, that Clori herself has been on Zakynthos for the past year. Not only that, she and Lidio have fallen in love, having presumably given up hope of their lost partners ever returning. Poor Egisto and Climene, waking up after their arduous journey home, find themselves surrounded by trees into which Clori has carved messages of adoration for Lidio (a shameful act of ecological graffiti, obviously). What to do?

Climene (Helen May) | Cupid (Stephanie Kershaw) and Venus (Ana Beard Fernández) Photos: Laurent Compagnon

It’s at this point that the opera starts. What do you do, having spent a year dreaming of your beloved, and having clawed your way back to them, only to find that you’ve been thrown over? And what do you do, as Lidio or Clori, when suddenly faced with the shocking reappearance of your former lover? From their point of view, isn’t it reasonable to have moved on? A year is a long time after all and absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. Even if your partner hasn’t been abducted by pirates, it can lead you to reassess your emotions (we’ve all just been through a year of lockdown and we’ve seen how some relationships have crumbled under the stress of separation).

Egisto (Kieran White) is the first to encounter his betrayer. He comes across Clori (Shafali Jalota) in the woods and hopes that, at the sight of him, she’ll fall into his arms. Not so. Clori immaturely decides to ghost him, hoping that if she pretends not to know him, he’ll give up and go away. But even this approach looks dignified compared to the reaction of Lidio (Eric Schlossberg) when confronted by the heartbroken Climene (Helen May). Essentially, he just tells her to get over it and, when she reproaches him for having taken her virginity with false promises, he shrugs it off: she wanted it just as much as he did, didn’t she? And she enjoyed it? So what’s the issue? He’s moved on. She’ll just have to deal with it. (Lidio does not come out of this opera well.)

Now, as I said, Climene is the princess of Zakynthos and her brother Hipparco (Tom Kelly) rules the island. He too has fallen in love with Clori and, as such, is the sworn rival of Lidio, whom he resents for having turned Clori’s head (the fact that Lidio has also dishonoured and betrayed his sister seems to be a relatively minor consideration). But he’s delighted when the furious Climene comes to him and swears vengeance upon Lidio. Clori may have refused all his blandishments so far, but perhaps she’ll think of him differently when Lidio is dead, or in prison, or otherwise conveniently removed from the scene.

Clori (Shafali Jalota) Photo: Laurent Compagnon

Now we need to turn to the gods. Egisto is mortal but has divine parentage: he’s the son of Apollo and, because Apollo and Venus have an ongoing spat, the goddess of love has an implacable hatred for Egisto – which is not what you want when you’re already in a bad place romantically. To spite Apollo, Venus (Ana Beard Fernández) decides to ensure that Clori will never return to Egisto, rendering him miserable forever. She summons her son, Cupid (Stephanie Hershaw), who is delighted at the chance to wreak havoc. He descends into the underworld to gather what he needs (I didn’t see exactly what this was, but I assume it was water from the rivers Styx or Lethe). Unfortunately for Cupid, it turns out that the underworld can be a dangerous place for gods as well as mortals. He is captured by the vengeful shades of Dido (Emily Noon), Phedra (also Ana Beard Fernández) and Semele (Rachel Allen), all of whom were driven to their deaths by love, and hold him responsible. They plan to whip him but, luckily for Cupid, an unexpected saviour turns up. This is Apollo (James Berry), who’s heard about Cupid’s capture and has come to gloat; but, on reflection, he decides to strike a bargain. In return for his freedom, Cupid must promise to restore order to the romantic chaos on Zakynthos. Despite his allegiance to Venus, Cupid doesn’t have much choice, and agrees with alacrity.

But what’s been happening on Zakynthos all this time? Dema (Anna-Luise Wagner), who is, at least spiritually, this opera’s lascivious comedy nurse, clucks her tongue at the heartbreak going on around her. In her opinion, everyone should just sleep with as many people as they can, rather than regret missed opportunities in later life. But no one is listening to her. In the midst of a flirtatious idyll, Lidio and Clori are rudely interrupted by Hipparco, who seizes Lidio and offers Climene the chance to exact revenge. Armed with a knife, she comes close to killing him, but discovers that she still loves him too much; instead, she attempts to kill herself. Slightly alarmingly, it’s this act of desperation which restores Lidio’s love for her (I said that Lidio was problematic).

But then, of course, it’s Clori’s turn to be abandoned. She’s shocked to hear that, despite his protestations of love, Lidio has gone back to Climene. She hasn’t yet fallen under Cupid’s spell, but her heart is softened by a distressing scene. Egisto has finally been driven mad (Cavalli, like many of his contemporaries, loved a mad scene) and it’s only through the grace of Cupid that he’s finally restored to sanity, and the two couples are correctly matched up. Hipparco, who doesn’t end up with anyone, displays great magnanimity and forgets about Clori, and all is well.

Lidio (Eric Schlossberg) | Hipparco (Tom Kelly) Photo: Laurent Compagnon

I thought it was worth discussing the plot in detail, because this isn’t a familiar opera and a lot of things happen which aren’t always easy to follow. Partly by choice, and partly by necessity, this production has chosen a very atomised kind of staging. Two large gauze curtains hang down the centre of the stage, emphasising the way that the two couples have been severed (but also, very helpfully, protecting the cast against too much exposure). The choreography does try to accommodate this, by keeping the characters moving, but the fact remains that your view of the action is ‘gauzy’ half the time if you’re sitting on one of the sides of the theatre (as two-thirds of the audience are). The atomisation isn’t just physical but emotional, and this does seem an entirely conscious choice on the part of the director Marcio da Silva. He writes in the programme of his desire to cut out extraneous gesture and focus on the core emotions, but this makes for a rather static and stylised approach. I might have warmed to it more if social distancing didn’t already oblige the cast to sing at some distance from one another, which made it difficult to convey the chemistry between the couples – despite, I must stress, some excellent emotional performances from the cast.

Another area of slight confusion was caused by ‘additional’ elements: the appearances of allegorical figures; the stately appearances of the gods; brief dances. These are presumably residual traces of masques and ballets in the original opera (Cavalli’s productions were extravagant affairs. To get an idea of the number of attendants, dancers and masquers, take a look at my post exploring costume designs for his Hipermestra). As with most modern productions, HGO have excised the ballets, but they’ve kept some of the associated mythological scenes. Some of these worked for me, like Cupid’s descent into hell (which must have been more elaborate in the original). Others, such as the appearance of three red-clad Hours at the end, didn’t flow quite as well, and seemed to jar with, rather than complement, the main action. I was also baffled by James Berry‘s appearance, at the end of the opera, in a red dress carrying a long red pole. He was clearly an allegorical representation of something – harmony perhaps?

Phedra (Ana Beard Fernández), Semele (Rachel Allen) and Dido (Emily Noon) Photo: Laurent Compagnon

My confusion probably wasn’t helped by a logistical issue with the surtitles, which were projected on the left-hand side of the back wall. Unfortunately, for those of us sitting on the right-hand side of the theatre, they were largely obscured by a hanging sun-disc, which charted the passage of time throughout the opera (in itself, an excellent idea). As I could only see half of each line, this posed some problems with comprehension.

But enough of the glitches. Let’s talk about some wonderful singing. Cavalli’s music can sound simple, as there is so little instrumentation compared to the ‘high’ Baroque arias by Handel, Vivaldi and co. But that also makes it incredibly difficult to sing well, because singers don’t have the support of the melody behind them. Their voices are exposed: there’s nowhere to hide. Fortunately, HGO had assembled a good young cast, featuring some familiar faces, and I felt that there were some especially strong performances. A shout-out must go to Helen May (Climene), whom I’ve seen several times before, notably as a powerful Amastre in Cavalli’s Xerse and as a cheekily exuberant Valletto in Monteverdi’s Poppea. She’s a hugely expressive singer, with velvety rich tones and the ability to convey the raw vulnerability of her character. That’s why she impressed me so much as Amastre, and her intensity worked equally well here, making Climene the character who interested me most.

Laurels also go to Kieran White (Egisto), whose gorgeous ‘haut-contre’ tenor was perfect for the musical style, and who switched effortlessly from romantic grace, to agonised grief, and then to outright madness. He’s also a gifted actor (I see that, in the past, he’s played the nurse Arnalta in Poppea, which I bet was a riot). I got the sense that he enjoyed Egisto’s mad scene a lot. As far as I’m aware, I haven’t seen him in anything before, but his name is now very firmly on my watchlist. Honourable mentions also go to Shafali Jalota, a mellifluous and elegant Clori; Stephanie Hershaw, a sparkling Cupid; and Ana Beard Fernández, who sang multiple roles including Phedra and the Fourth Hour, but who caught my eye as a commanding Venus. And, last but by no means least, I thoroughly enjoyed the resonantly supple baritone of James Berry, who mopped up a variety of roles with enormous aplomb – cheerfully cross-dressing as Night and that mysterious figure in red, but also playing a sleek, amused Apollo.

James Berry in full flow | Dema (Anna-Luise Wagner) Photos: Laurent Compagnon

It’s always wonderful to be introduced to new singers, and to catch up with familiar faces, and HGO should be congratulated for pulling together such a talented young team, and for making the best of the various restrictions imposed by Covid. Producing a Cavalli opera is always challenging, as one has to convey not only the glorious beauty of the music, but also the strange mixture of earnest drama and madcap comedy. As with all their operas, they’ve created a striking production that’s sympathetic to the traditions of its source, while adding in touches of modern flair. I really hope they’ll be encouraged to try more early Baroque opera in future, as it’s such a treat to see unfamiliar works like this being brought back to life. And, after a long year, one tends to forget the sheer magic of experiencing something like this in an intimate venue like the Cockpit.

Incidentally, while writing this post, I happened to stumble across a video recording of the Egisto performed in Glasgow in 1982, the first UK performance. Although it looks dated to modern eyes, it forms a fascinating complement to the HGO production, and there are interesting (if rather old-school) introductions to help set the scene. Well worth a look if you fancy learning more about this little-known piece.

And, to finish, I’m going to flag HGO’s autumn production this year, which will be The Marriage of Figaro, sometime in November. Keep an eye on their website for info.

Find out more about Hampstead Garden Opera

Climene (Helen May) commiserates with Egisto (Kieran White) Photo: Laurent Compagnon

2 thoughts on “Egisto (1643): Francesco Cavalli

  1. robertday154 says:

    Your bafflement at James Berry’s appearance shouldn’t be that much of a surprise; there can be all sorts of stuff in baroque opera that makes no sense to us now, even before you consider that in the elapsed time between the composer finishing the score and the performance today, all sorts of things could have happened: pages get lost, some impresario says “No, no, it’s too long – lose this scene from the beginning of Act 2′, some VIP in the audience expects to see one of their favourites in the opera when there isn’t really a part for them so something has to be dashed off half an hour before curtain up – anything can and did happen.

    I remember reading a review in ‘The Gramophone’ years ago of Handel’s ‘Judas Maccabeus’, where the reviewer concentrated on the plot, just to show how you shouldn’t get too worked up over things like “accuracy”. About half-way through, the review went something like this:

    “At this point a messenger arrives from Rome with news that everyone said they were expecting, but everyone is surprised to see him. He sings an involved aria about how he brings this important message from Rome, but he fails to say exactly who in Rome it is from, or what the message actually is. He then leaves the scene and is not seen again. No-one else mentions this important message.”

    Still, this probably explains the absence, in an opera involving pirates, of an aria with the title “Arrrr, perfido!”

    I’ll get me coat.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      The funny thing is, Robert, that Berry’s role would have made sense if only I’d known what it was 😉 In this case, the bafflement was not due to the opera (I’m used to being baffled by daft stories by now). It’s just that I couldn’t see the surtitles and the character wasn’t mentioned in the cast list. But he was very good, whoever he was meant to be. 😉

      You’re right, the original stories were often a bit mad – but early works like this can be even more confusing to modern viewers because they don’t look like the operas we’re familiar with (just compare my two posts on Hipermestra, and the differences between the original version and the Glyndebourne production. Where were the ballets of Furies and Gardeners in the Glyndebourne version? Mind you, modern impresarios probably judge, quite correctly, that such things are diversions from the main story and most people don’t really want to be sitting there for five hours).

      I do feel very strongly that there aren’t enough operas about pirates. I’ve mentioned this before, but if anyone out there is interested, I’ve got a dream version of Xerxes set on a pirate ship 😂

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