It's okay to get all historically informed when tackling music that's 380 years old. But do we have the context today to handle the presence of Olympian gods – from Jove himself right down to Peneo, the little-known river god – on stage? What's the relationship between sun-god Apollo and his precursor, Aurora the dawn?

Alexandra Oomens (Dafne)
© Brett Boardman

Given that Francesco Cavalli's second opera, Gli amori di Apollo e di Dafne specifically mentions the blinding presence of Apollo, is it enough to present him in a brilliant yellow outfit and have everyone wearing sunglasses? Not quite. For this excellent Pinchgut production directed by Mitchell Butel throws in all sorts of contemporary references, none of which stick in the craw. Virtual Reality goggles for sleepers in the opening scene in which Sonos, god of sleep, imparts a dream to the sleepers in which a woman is turned into a tree. How appropriate. Apollo's frequent selfies say much about his self-absorbed character – what better earthly presence than as a fitness trainer. Did he even need the impetus of Cupid's arrow to make a play for Dafne?

Max Riebl (Cephalo) and Alexandra Oomens (Aurora)
© Brett Boardman

But how to justify turning the bonny Dafne – now a bush-regenerator/gardener – into that laurel tree? Even when an element of feminism is thrown into her adamantine character, it's hard to accept her view that “chastity, a noble soul's most valuable treasure” deserves such a fate. But then librettist Busanello comes up with a positively Shakespearean compromise in which Apollo, after watering her roots with his tears, is awarded a laurel wreath by the repentant Dafne – to have and to hold for ever.

Mind you, she might just as well have been moved by Apollo's sensual lament, “Ohime, che miro?” (Oh no, what do I see?) when he spots Dafne's transformation. It's one of a trio of marvellous laments – along with Procris' “I am betrayed, I am erased” when she spots her husband in a dishevelled state with Aurora; and Venus' over-the-top tearful plaint that Apollo's shared her naked image on the gods' social media. Her pain, however, is eased by daddy Jove's noble declamati, even more so by the plot to send Cupid off to cause Apollo to fall so frustratingly in love.

Max Riebl (Cirilla) and David Hidden (Alfesibeo)
© Brett Boardman

Cavalli's importance in the operatic canon cannot be denied today – for Procris' lament from 1640 must surely have inspired Purcell some 48 years later to give Dido similar emotions and, indeed, notes. A pity that reputation then went into abeyance until Raymond Leppard brought him back to life in 1967 at Glyndebourne, a much more full-bodied version than Erin Helyard's lean one for Pinchgut.

In Sydney, a superb basso continuo did much the work, lead by Laura Vaughan on viola da gamba and lirone, a fearless Baroque harp from Hannah Lane and Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo. Helyard, of course, conducted his third cavalli opera from both harpsichord and chamber organ.

Max Riebl (Apollo) and Stacey Alleaume (Amore)
© Brett Boardman

And that sort of doubling – even quadrupling – extended through the cast. Countertenor Max Riebl may have identified with Apollo, but his phlegmy Titone, his crone Cirilla and his adulterer Cefalo tested both his acting and the speed with which he could change into distinctively different costumes. But it was the women who shone. Both Alexandra Oomens – the only cast member brought home from overseas for the show – as a scarlet Aurora and a green Dafne, and Stacey Alleaume as a punk Cupid and the lamenting Procris glistened throughout through both character and vocal delight.


*****