By Gordon Williams
Photo credit: Brett Boardman
Antonio Cesti’s 1656 opera “Orontea” was first performed in Innsbruck at the court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles. So popular was it in its day that it enjoyed more than 17 revivals at various musical centers before the close of the 1600s. On May 26, 2022, it premiered in Australia thanks to the enterprising Australian baroque company, Pinchgut Opera.
In a podcast interview with music journalist Genevieve Lang on Pinchgut’s website, Artistic Director Erin Helyard explained that one criterion by which he selects repertoire for this award-winning company’s seasons of early opera is by choosing works that were popular in their time and seeing “if that popularity extends to today.”
“Orontea” is a marvelously sophisticated work, considering it is only 50-or-so years younger than the actual inception of opera itself. Judging by the audience’s reaction to its first Australian performance at Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall, “Orontea” still delights.
In terms of plot, “Orontea” begins with a wager over who is stronger: Amore, God of Love—played by Australian soprano Roberta Diamond in this production—or Filosofia, God of Reason—played by American soprano Sofia Troncoso. Amore flies to Egypt—or “in a heightened, contemporary world, somewhere between Egypt and Las Vegas,” according to an introduction on the company’s website—to test their influence over Queen Orontea, who has renounced love and is played by Australian mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley.
Enter Alidoro, a painter who has fled the advances of Princess Arnea of Phoenicia, played by New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernethy. Almost immediately, Alidoro’s presence creates havoc in Orontea’s realm, and she and another woman of the court, Silandra—played by Sofia Troncoso again—both fall for the newcomer. Silandra even discards her own lover Corindo, played by Australian tenor Douglas Kelly. The plot involves other pairings—love is potent after all—and there is a brief, classic case of mistaken identity. There are, in fact, many combinations of ‘two-handers,’ including a duet between Giacinta, who is also in love with Alidoro—whom Roberta Diamond also plays—and a marvelously histrionic Aristea—sung by Australian mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews—who is, supposedly, Alidoro’s mother, though it will turn out that Alidoro is of nobler blood, of course.
In the aforementioned podcast, Helyard makes the point that even so soon after the invention of opera, certain conventions had arisen, and Cesti and his librettist Cicognini brilliantly refreshed those tropes. The ‘lament’ common at this time becomes Silandra’s first song of love for Alidoro. The use of the genre, according to Helyard, signifies that her love for the hero is doomed.
There are usually ‘sleeping scenes’ in early opera. The first one in “Orontea” is actually for a ‘lowly character,’ Gelone, who sleeps not because he is under a spell—the normal cliché—but because he is drunk. One of the most enjoyable scenes in this production involved Gelone, played with comic gusto by Australian bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor, and his hallucination of dancing beer bottles peeping out through the upstage curtain.
Small Orchestra, Big Sound
In contrast to Pinchgut’s production of Rameau’s “Platée,” reviewed by “OperaWire” last November, the orchestra for this production was made far more prominent. They were downstage and encircled by a waist-high catwalk that singers could use for moments of dramatic or vocal emphasis. This meant the audience could easily see the performance’s purely instrumental aspects. It was an advantage enjoyed right from the start, when the audience could savor the delightful interplay of violinists Matthew Greco and Karina Schmitz.
The production was given in an edition of the opera prepared by Artistic Director Erin Helyard himself. There were plenty of orchestral delights. One example is the range of effects in the continuo accompaniment. These were transitions between various plucked strings: Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo and baroque guitar, Hannah Lane’s harp, and Helyard’s harpsichord. There was such a small ensemble—only nine players—in the pit, and yet such an effect! A cymbal roll from percussionist Brian Nixon could create an incredible atmosphere under, say, Alidoro’s Act two number “Qual fulmine tonante,” underscoring Jonathan Abernethy’s effectively thunderstruck declamation.
So many of the recitatives were extremely vivid. A number of them, monologues, in fact, are accounts and often nicely visualized. An example of this was when Australian tenor Louis Hurley, as Tibrino, recounted in “Affronti, offese, e poco men che morti,” his discovery of the young man Alidoro—left wounded and nearly dead—whom he brings to Orontea’s court. As Alidoro, Abernethy also gave vivid accounts. His exceptionally clear voice was its own spotlight.
This early masterpiece received enthusiastic advocacy from a large cast. Orontea herself has the largest emotional arc of the characters, and Anna Dowsley impressed on every entry. Her first aria, “Superbo Amore,” where she defied love to lodge itself in her heart, immediately established her largeness of character, especially in the carefree lilt with which she assured Love that he did not torment her and the insolent swagger of her insistence on ‘libertà,’ or ‘freedom.’
The most famous number in the work is Orontea’s “Intorno all’idol mio,” or, as it was translated by the multi-talented Roberta Diamond in the program booklet, “Around my idol let breezes waft, oh waft soft and kind…” It is another sleeping scene, where the aria is delivered over a prostrate Alidoro. Anna Dowsley expresses great passion within the constraints of the ‘lullaby’ genre, her swelling through a word like ‘cortesi’ and then dying away almost to nothing, conveying a sense of being riven by feeling.
Silandra must fall out of love with Corindo and in love with Alidoro. Sofia Troncoso conveyed callous dismissal of Corindo in her Act two, scene eight lament, “Addio, Corindo, addio,” but a convincing and immediate shift in desire with her importuning “Vieni, Alidoro, vieni…” where her coloratura conveyed real sensations of longing. Poor Corindo! Troncoso dredged up such an ugly tone of contempt in their subsequent duet when she demanded to know “What do you want?” that one easily sympathized with the sadness of Corindo, played with great pathos by Kelly, as he was left bereft.
Australian baritone David Greco, as Creonte, the one sober voice of reason left in the court, radiated great authority. A melisma could convey stern authority in one number, while it could be downright scary on another occasion. His spoken musings when Orontea wonders what she should do—“Banish him, send him far away”—were almost chilling.
Composer and Librettist on the Run
I must thank Pinchgut for printing the full libretto and Diamond’s translation in the program. It was a fitting tribute to the librettist’s contribution to this early operatic masterpiece.
“[I]n the detective work of conceiving a new staging, we found most inspiration in the life of the librettist Giacinto Cicognini and in the times he wrote this piece,” wrote director Constantine Costi in a note in the program booklet. That made sense in terms of explaining a certain bacchanalian character to the work. Cicognini’s life seems to have been somewhat swashbuckling. He may have fled Florence for Venice at one point because of an altercation at a horse race. Cesti, the composer, according to Grove’s Dictionary, also “precipitated a nasty quarrel that effectively barred him from ever returning to [Venice].” Florence, Venice—the list of Italian Republics which looked poorly upon the two rabble-rousing men begins to stack up. Keep in mind that “Orontea” is considered a ‘Venetian opera,’ even if the premiere was in Innsbruck!
Maybe there was something hedonistic, even chaotic, in the life stories of both these creators. But how did this work as inspiration for Costi’s production? First, Costi and set designer Jeremy Allen turned the venue, Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall, into a theater. The catwalk enclosing the orchestral playing area has already been mentioned. There were columns to suggest, ever-so-slightly, the pomp of Orontea’s palace, and two silvered palm trees on either side of the playing area providing the faintest whiff of ‘Egypt’… or was it the Luxor in Las Vegas? Then there was another stage and proscenium further back, which could be used to provide a golden backdrop or serve as a large tableau painting that Alidoro might be working on while seducing Silandra.
Dancing with Love and Reason
There was a high component of dance and choreography in this production, an important indicator of the element of sheer entertainment. The choreographer and movement director was Shannon Burns. At the beginning, the audience entered the hall to find a red-costumed devil sitting on a swing above the stage. This was Amore, or rather the Dancing Amore, as performed by Ryan Smith. Yes, a Dancing Amore was interpreting the Singing Amore’s pronouncements, just as the Singing Filosofia also had a dancing counterpart. Designer Sabina Myer’s devil’s suit gave an early indication of the ambiguous benefits of Love’s influence, while the decrepit movements of Allie Graham’s dark-costumed Filosofia foreshadowed who would lose the Prologue’s wager.
The novel use of both dancing and singing Amores and Filosofias had its pros and cons. In the Prologue’s ‘love versus reason’ debate, when there was meat in the text, I found my eyes wandering to the singers standing to the side instead of the dancers in the middle. On the other hand, the use of both singers and dancers to represent the characters of Amore and Filosofia meant these two inciting figures could remain present through the subsequent drama, while the singers who had originally taken their ‘voices’ covered other roles.
The set design gave a subtle suggestion of setting, but there were other, less subtle but effective, even riveting, moments in the production which really sucked the audience into the story. The red of Damien Cooper’s lighting at the moment when Orontea broke through Alidoro’s painting to interrupt his and Silandra’s tryst was particularly arresting and powerful, accompanied by Helyard’s sinister organ. The organ itself is yet another example of the illustrative color possible from this nine-member orchestra.
Too Much Fun?
Pinchgut’s website describes “Orontea” as a “pleasure-filled romp, ” which raises some follow-up questions. Might the production have benefited from a marginally more serious approach? There was even a pillow fight at one point. How important is it to grasp, early on, the hierarchies of this society that Amore will upend? While it is true that at the beginning of the performance Orontea was carried in stately fashion atop a chair that had been pre-set around a banquet table, with connotations of a sedan chair, was Orontea a queen, or could she have been any sort of high-life celebrity who consequently loses her status? One possibility may have been actually to go to Las Vegas from Egypt, rather than combine shades of both from the beginning.
The audience laughed at the production’s jokes and cheered a partial male striptease at the beginning of Part Two, but it sometimes seemed as if the production opted for laughs over drama. Costumes such as Giacinta’s cowboy suit—the scene may have been in the American Southwest, remember—added to the whimsy of the occasion, as did her lonesome-cowgirl guitar song, “Il mio ben dice ch’io speri” (“My love tells me to hope”). Did it deserve serious framing? Maybe it does not matter. Roberta Diamond’s rendition was touching, and there is a comical root to the song, as she too has fallen in love with Alidoro.
Much of the last part of the performance took place in a massive bed. Creonte, Reason’s representative in the Egyptian court and someone who has had some serious things to say, emerges from under sheets that cover Orontea, as if he has been caught, as well, ‘in flagrante delicto?’ Granted, it seems like there was a great point being made about how love is the great leveler. Other characters who similarly seem to have been toppled by the raucous effects of wild love include—judging from the characters’ costumes—a schoolboy and a polo player. But might this ‘topsy-turvydom’ have made a more powerful conclusion if elements of it had been established with a higher degree of clarity earlier on?
These reflections only came to me towards the end of the performance, after nearly three hours in the theater. But then we reached the final number. This was a ravishing quartet where all the machinations have been put to rights, Alidoro has been revealed to be of royal blood and therefore an appropriate partner for Orontea, and Silandra has returned to her Corindo. There is a glorious combination of voices when the four sing, “Love most chaste, two blessed hearts tremble with ardor,” and Alidoro gains wings. It was moving.
For the most part, this was an enjoyable evening. Does the work’s popularity extend to the present day? On balance, it does. On a poignant note, these performances were dedicated to the memory of great Australian counter-tenor Max Riebl, who was intended to have sung Corindo.