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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Xerse (1654): Francesco Cavalli

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★

(Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 24 August 2018)

Would you believe it? I haven’t seen a single production of Xerxes for almost two years! It’s a wonder I haven’t had withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, I leaped at the chance to see Cavalli’s version of this fabulous story performed by Ensemble OrQuesta, as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Unlike most of the audience, I suspect, I’d actually seen Cavalli’s rare opera before, in a superb semi-staged performance in Vienna back in 2015, and so the bar was high. But it turned out that the OrQuesta show was actually a fascinating complement, not a rival, to the Vienna production, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Very simply staged, with costumes in sombre shades of black, and with a stunning silver-wire tree as the only prop, it was a pared-down, effective performance of a seldom-seen opera – and a welcome introduction to some exciting 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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