Orontea loves you/loves you not (Wigmore Hall, 14 December 2015)
In 1656, composer/singer Antonio Cesti and librettist Giacinto Andrea Cicognini (with some help from Giovanni Filippo Apolloni) packed a whole soap season worth of twists and turns into 2 hours. Maybe you – like me – have never heard of it before, but Wiki assures us that it was one of the most popular operas of the 17th century. Maybe you’re a big JDD fan and have heard Intorno all’idol mio on her Drama Queens album. It has been recorded by other mezzos as well, though Wiki says Orontea
is was in 1656 a soprano role. Let’s conclude that the 1600s are the new 1700s.
If you want an introduction from the horse’s mouth, David Bates explains it here:
David Bates director | La Nuova Musica
Orontea: Anna Stephany mezzo-soprano
Alidoro: Jonathan McGovern baritone
Silandra: Mary Bevan soprano
Corindo: Michal Czerniawski countertenor
Giacinta: Anat Edri soprano
Aristea: Samuel Furness tenor
Creonte: Timothy Dickinson bass
Tibrino: Christopher Turner tenor
Gelone: Edward Grint bass-baritone
The story starts with Orontea (queen of Egypt) proudly boasting that she doesn’t need a man in her bed (don’t get your hopes up, she’s straight). Famous last words. Within 5min a gravely wounded arty young man (Alidoro, role created by Cesti himself 😉 ) is brought in front of her. The long tradition of women losing their wits over boyband rejects goes way back (though this one is a painter).
self sendup funny twist in this case – it’s a comedy – is that Alidoro has a similar effect on every woman around, save – thankfully! – for his mother, who has fallen for the girl travelling incognito in men’s clothes. Here we have as the mother (Aristea) a manly man singing in a manly manner, in hot persuit of a girly young woman (Giacinta) singing girlishly but playing a man (who has actually managed to wound – perhaps with a handbag – the boyband reject). Yes to that I say! Btw, Giacinta falls for Alidoro, too, and apologises for the handbah incident 😉
The rest of the plot has Orontea – remember her? She’s the main character – changing her mind about 5-6 times whether to love or not love Alidoro, sometimes for personal reasons (Alidoro is soft putty in the hands of courtesan Silandra), other times for political reasons (Alidoro is believed to be a commoner). She’s very regal and has arias soaked in noble sentiment, as queens did back then. Today we’d say her music is a bit boring. Ok, the more generous among us would call it heartfelt and soulful. Those who get to sing the role argue it’s complex because she doesn’t know what to do with this new feeling. Fine 😉
As it was usual in the 17th century, there are a slew of others = courtiers, hanger ons. We have the customary fool/court drunk (Gelone) whose role is pretty much a long ode to getting pissed to jaunty tunes. Yes to this as well. Then we have the chap who loves Silandra, who’s a sort of Oronte and still takes her back after she mercilessly dumps him. Corindo and Silandra’s duet was my favourite bit of the evening. A soprano and a countertenor cover roughly the same register, yet the texture is different. Czerniawski (you can hear him in the video above) was my favourite voice of the night, bright and clear but not too high. He and Bevan fit very well together.
As Bates says, the music itself is of the transitional kind, moved on from Monteverdi and original enough but the aria-recit-aria formula that will define 18th century Baroque opera had not congealed yet. The music is still mostly free-flowing recit with quite a few interesting twists, such as more duets than we’re used to in something like Handel. The song-like tunes are reserved for the funny characters. Here the prologue was cut, leaving it all very worldly. In Nuova Musica’s case I especially appreciated the lively cornetto interventions and the vigorous viola da gamba, though the harpsichordist added neat dramatic details as well.
Whoever translated the libretto sometimes went a bit too wink-wink, nudge-nudge but generally speaking did a sterling job at bringing the comedy forth, especially in the part where Aristea tells “Ismero” (Giacinta in disguise) of her feelings, using the beloved ship at sea metaphor.
Given that London is still negotiating its Baroque opera-friendly venues, Wigmore Hall hosted this concert performance. As far as sound this was an excellent idea, which I hope continues. Space-wise, the stage is a bit small for a Baroque orchestra and 10 or so soloists, forcing the singers to squeeze around the orchestra, sometimes hidden behind the instruments. They were also super lively which sometimes translated into shouting (mostly by Baroque standards, though Christopher Turner can sure belt belcanto style). Otherwise I have no complaints regarding singing, it’s down to preference.
Which brings me to Anna Stephany’s Orontea. She’s singing Sesto this coming July in the Zurich Tito revival, which I am tempted to see. Wicked Sesto is very hard to pull off and if he fails so does that particular Tito souffle. I was curious if AS had the kind of personality that can manage that, various youtube clips having left me unconvinced. After this performance – granted, Orontea and Sesto have little in common, though they’re both thrown by love – I’d wager she does not.
Given the libretto, I expected a bit more chutzpah, a bit of mocking of Orontea from her, which I did not get. Very pleasant mezzo tone for sure, but I also didn’t get more than a couple of interesting details in her singing. She can do regal no problem and gentle too, but I kept waiting for that less than serious undercurrent. Maybe it’s just me and a Baroque queen of Egypt is a Baroque queen of Egypt (though, Handel’s Cleopatra is winky enough…). Maybe it’s undercurrent in general that she lacks. In any case, that Sesto needs it.
A word of thanks to Baroque Bird (formely referred to as HM) who upgraded yours truly from row U to the 5th row 😀 It was very interesting not just seeing everybody but observing voice placement, so to speak.
…thus ends my live performance year 2015 in a nice round way, back to the 1600s.