“There were ten in a bed and the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over’; so they all rolled over and one fell out!”

The cast of Orontea
© Brett Boardman

An extraordinary response, perhaps, to Pinchgut Opera's production of Cesti's 1656 hit, Orontea, but justified by the company's increasing predilection for rollicking physical comedy to distract from absolutely ravishing music, sung and played to perfection. Last year, their Platée was an over-the-top farce. Now they've used the justifiable excuse that there are many orchestral episodes where something needs to be happening on stage to appoint choreographer Shannon Burns to the production team. But when virtually all the characters end up in a heap on a vast scarlet double bed, pillow fighting while Dominica Matthews's Aristea is delivering the big reveal, I have to say, “Enough!”.

Anna Dowsley (Orontea)
© Brett Boardman

In contrast, when Anna Dowsley's Queen Orontea crouches still at the front of the stage to sing the famous mezzo aria, “Intorno all’idol mio” (Around my idol) to the senseless Alidoro, not a note or emotion went missing. The vulnerability of Dowsley's tones were a real distinction to the imperiousness with which she'd earlier declared that her heart would never by moved by love (or the political need to marry), and the brutal harshness with which she would jealously order his banishment over the phone. A fine performance.

Did it help that the apparently vagrant painter Alidoro was played by her husband, Jonathan Abernethy? Not really, for neither character betrays anything like conjugal consistency in Cicognini's libretto – Alidoro pursued by three women during the opera and jumping from one to another with amoral alacrity; while Orontea moves from the extremes of her Queen Christina-like determination never to love, to a passion based entirely on Alidoro's looks, to jealousy, to an unbelievable “Castissimi amore” (Love most chaste) when she discovers he's a Phoenician royal stolen as a child by pirates!

Jonathan Abernethy (Alidoro) and Sofia Troncoso (Silandra)
© Brett Boardman

Constantine Costi's direction of this farrago was a delight when holding back the physicality. But it was the music in Artistic Director Erin Helyard's highly informed hands that shone through. A tiny band of soloists added lustre, especially the mellifluous duetting between Matt Greco's violin (he's played in 23 of Pinchgut's 26 productions) and Karina Schmitz's violin. Everyone in the 12-strong cast gets a good tune, stand-outs being David Greco as the saturnine court philosopher representing Reason in its losing battle with Amore; Andrew O'Connor's drunken Gelone, who lushly added alcohol as a contender to the battle; and Roberta Diamond, whose roller-skating, cross-dressing Giacinta adds a fourth challenger to the debate, threatening to die of love most movingly.

Roberta Diamond (Giacinta)
© Brett Boardman

The production was dedicated to the memory of the late countertenor, Max Riebl, who was cast to play Corindo. He died, just 30, in April. With performances to his credit at the Wiener Konzerthaus, Musikverein and Royal Albert Hall, his multi-tasking as Apollo and three other parts in Pinchgut's production of Cavalli's The Loves of Apollo and Dafne will stay burnished in the memory.