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.

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Partenope (1730): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Partenope

★★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 21 May 2019)

It’s summer on the Bay of Naples and Partenope rules the roost. With her eager band of male followers and her chic Victorian swimwear, this queen of the sands is the last word in organised fun. But something’s up down at the beach. A rival gang, led by the flattering Emilio, is trying take over the next cove along; and Partenope’s newest beau, Arsace, looks set to steal her heart. If only an irritating little fellow called Eurimene would stop popping up to spoil it all! Hampstead Garden Opera relocate Handel’s comedy of manners to the end of the 19th century, when men were men (and had moustaches and stripy beachwear) and women ruled the waves. Brightly coloured, lively and full of fun, it was the most engaging version of the opera I’ve seen yet; better still, we had the good fortune to see an extremely promising cast of young singers.

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L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, 12-21 May 2017)

This spring, Hampstead Garden Opera are trying something new: their first Italian opera staged in the original language rather than English translation. The opera in question is Poppea, a perennial favourite of mine. Who could resist this blend of scheming, sexual abandon, murder and imperial arrogance? Certainly not me. Presented on a stripped-back set, this production focuses the attention firmly on the two women, Ottavia and Poppea, competing for the heart of Rome’s indolent, decadent emperor. With sterling support from Musica Poetica, under the baton of Oliver John Ruthven, and a number of exciting voices to add to my watchlist, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon out.

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The Magic Flute (1791): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart: The Magic Flute

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Jackson’s Lane, 15 November 2016)

Tuesday night saw an exciting milestone: my first Flute. I get the feeling the Flute is a bit like the Nutcracker, in that many people first encounter it as children, as a magical way into its art form. However, having waited until adulthood to take the plunge, I was less concerned about the magic and more about whether I’d be able to follow its complicated allegories of Masonic enlightenment. Fortunately, Hampstead Garden Opera’s production told a delightfully clear story which emphasised the narrative at its heart: a mother struggling to do her best for her child, and the transformative effects of first love.

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Don Giovanni (1787): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

151105 HGO's Don Giovanni

★★★★

(Hampstead Garden Opera, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 6 November 2015)

This is well overdue and I hope Hampstead Garden Opera will forgive me, but they can rest assured that my further tentative shuffle out of the Baroque was very enjoyable. Six months after their simple and smart Xerxes, they’ve taken on another heavyweight of the operatic canon and given him their own ineffable twist: none less than the Don himself.

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Xerxes (1738): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Xerxes

★★★½

(Hampstead Garden Opera at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 30 April 2015)

Those who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my Xerxes Project. As I’ve booked to see three live productions of Handel’s Xerxes this year, each of which promises to have its own very distinct flavour, I thought I’d make a theme of it. (I’m also doing some broader historical reading on Achaemenid Persia, so I’ve been examining our favourite brat-prince from several different perspectives.) I kicked things off in style this last weekend by taking in two productions, in two countries, in two languages, in three days. Things got underway in Highgate on Thursday, where Hampstead Garden Opera was holding court at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, one of London’s leading pub-theatres.

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