Hot love in the sand dunes, turn-ons with lingerie, crude homosexual attacks – the staging of this baroque opera gets pretty close to the knuckle. And no wonder, since we’re talking about a Carnival piece composed by Antonio Cesti in 1656 for the House of Innsbruck. “Love recognises no laws,” wrote Giacinto Cigognini in the the libretto, and British director Walter Sutcliffe has taken him at his word, lighting up the stage in multi-coloured profusion, from some parts in garish colours to others delicate and moving.

Guy de Mey (Aristea), Kateryna Kasper (Giacinta) & Extras © Monika Rittershaus
Guy de Mey (Aristea), Kateryna Kasper (Giacinta) & Extras
© Monika Rittershaus
All the confusion starts from a strong statement: the Egyptian queen Orontea has proclaimed that she will never fall in love. Clearly, that was never going to work, the proof of which is played out over three and half hours of madcap action riddled with erotic games: Venetian Carnival opera was never a child full of woe. Similarly comic love entanglements were not to be found until Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the devices of which can already be seen in L’Orontea: false identities, cunningly crafted letters and babies stolen at birth, the same method of proof of princely birth by means of an amulet. In the course of the action, just about everyone loves someone else, but after many turbulent struggles, everything comes right in the happy (of course) ending, and Love and Philosophy come out of the dispute in the Prologue as the happy winners. In Frankfurt, this ending was celebrated by a dozen Eroses at a barbecue with sausages and plenty of beer: baroque opera taking the mickey out of itself with gusto.

But also musically, thanks to conductor Ivor Bolton, this evening was a feast of baroque splendour. The period instruments of the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble included a Positive Organ, theorbos, lirones and cornetts to provide an immense palette, the strings of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra delivered a powerful background for a heady, sensual sound. But Bolton is also a master of fine calibration of this outstandingly expressive music. So he effectively held back tempo and strength at the end of an aria to create the appropriate mood, such as in the aria of Alidoro, who is idolised by all women, but goes weak at the knees as he falls in love himself.

In this main male role, Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata started a real charm offensive, and not just with his looks. His warm and lyrical timbre was able not only  to charm Orontea, whose intentions went out of the window upon the first encounter with this radiant creature, but at the same to bewitch the whole audience. Having publicly proclaimed her will as Queen, Orontea is now required to somehow negotiate a path between her (increasingly difficult to maintain) self-control and her rapidly swelling passion, which Soprano Paula Murrihy acted convincingly, while giving us a vocal performance with elegant lines and seductively lovely timbre.

X. Sabata (Alidoro), P. Murrihy (Orontea), L. Alder (Silandra), M. Rexroth (Corindo) & Ensemble © Monika Rittershaus
X. Sabata (Alidoro), P. Murrihy (Orontea), L. Alder (Silandra), M. Rexroth (Corindo) & Ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus
A second noble couple mixed strongly into this heady brew of love: this is the lady-in-waiting Silandra, who, in the shape of soprano Louise Alder, wove her feminine attractions most appealingly as well as scoring highly for beauty of voice, and her cast off but later rehabilitated lover Corindo, performed by countertenor Matthias Rexroth so as to seem like a forerunner of Mozart’s Don Ottavio: heroic, but rather defensive. It’s not only this sitcom feel that makes this staging into great entertainment: a good contribution came from the costumes, which were cleverly laden with meaning to provide a commentary on the nature of the characters.

So the officer of the Palace Guard was portrayed as the skipper of a cruise ship, while the invariably drunk servant Gelone came in the guise of Butler James from Dinner for One. Orontea’s robes shone in majestic blue, while as an additional high point, Aristea astonished us after the interval by coming on as a love-stricken old woman who seemed to arrived directly from a trashy soap opera. In this part, Guy de Mey switched his voice superbly across the registers and gave us such superb comic body language as to make him a strong candidate for the “best actor in a supporting role” award.

For long passages, the text is ironic and the events are stage in a coarse manner, but there are also softer moments in which love appears in its most tender intimacy, such as in Orontea and Alidoro’s duet at their first meeting. For a moment, here, time seemed to stand still, and only the music spoke to us, with the two voices combining harmoniously in sheer pleasure. But soon, the playful tempo returned, and the amorous merry-go-round began once more. In the throne room, of course, the Queen’s ancestors were shown not as oil paintings but as ancient Egyptian busts made from plaster cast.

These sorts of gags probably aren’t everyone’s idea of an opera performance. But the staging suited the piece quite well, and with the right sense of humour, there’s plenty here to enjoy – as this evening’s audience seemed to do.



Translated from German by David Karlin.

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