Opera director András Almási-Toth’s whimsical updating of an early Baroque opera by Antonio Cesti switches the composer’s L'Orontea from Ancient Greece to 2016, featuring a cadre of millennials, digital devices in hand, discussing the virtues and vagaries of love. Shunning the naysayers of intrepid anachronism, Almási-Toth’s highly entertaining, eye-popping production artfully complemented Cesti’s florid score with tantalizing 21st-century references.

Gyula Rab (Alidoro) and Judit Anna Kiss (Aristea) © Gabor Kotschy
Gyula Rab (Alidoro) and Judit Anna Kiss (Aristea)
© Gabor Kotschy

L'Orontea, with an amusing but often confusing plot not unlike the socially forthright plays of Molière, was presented in the Franz Liszt Academy as part of the ongoing Budapest Spring Festival. For this special production, István Rózsa’s set design was an ultra-stylized underwear boutique filled with colourful bras fitted onto headless white mannequins. And front and center were the giant lucite letters: L O V E (with a tilted O), echoing an American advertising graphic from the 1980s. The letters were utilized throughout the production as moveable furniture.

To sing of both the praise and the purgatory of L O V E, a cast of eleven singers, headed up by soprano Emőke Baráth as Orontea, the Queen of Egypt. The character has a conundrum in order to properly carry out her royal duties. As a centerpoint amongst a whirling circle of sparring couples, she must decide whether or not to find her King.

The cast was a mix of Hungarian and international singers, six of whom are students at the Academy. Though that provided an unpredictable mix of vocal acumen, all of them injected maximum energy into the vocal and theatrical tasks and brandished excellent, clear Italian pronunciation that was uttered as if it were their native language. Thanks to superb stage direction, the choreography of bodies flowed organically with action informed by the meaning of the words.

In the title role, Baráth’s jewel-toned soprano had plenty of gems to sing: she sailed through aria after aria with sweet tone, nuanced acting, and a crystal-clear command of the continuum of fioritura. Her Act III aria was a major hit in the late 1600s: “Intorno, all’idol mio” (Around my idol), which she sings to Alidoro, her enigmatic suitor, as he sleeps. While the Queen’s character profile was more serious than the others’, Almási-Toth had her step out of those boundaries for a hilarious Joan Crawford moment – an eyeball-rolling hissy-fit of jealousy, underscored by frenzied violins and a wildly deranged harpsichord sequence.

Julia Hajnóczy (Silandra) and Gyula Rab (Alidoro) © Gabor Kotschy
Julia Hajnóczy (Silandra) and Gyula Rab (Alidoro)
© Gabor Kotschy

Tenor Gyula Rab was outstanding as Alidoro, a pivotal role requiring irresistible protagonist charisma. His effortless delivery of countless recitatives and superbly acted responses to various females as they lusted after him (including his own mother) easily commanded the stage. From his first entrance as a wounded warrior that got Orontea’s initial attention to his final comic moments as her newly-appointed King, Rab’s lucid vocalism and natural acting makes this young artist one to watch for.

Ayane Imai as Amor was styled as a cheery, chirpy Cupid, sporting a Roy Lichtenstein graphic print skirt and an Animé-style wig. Although she sang admirably in the prologue and briefly at the end, her role was largely silent: flitting about the stage, using mime and balletic action as clever visual devices. Countertenor György Philipp, as courtier Corindo, used his wide-ranged voice to achieve a Jekyll—Hyde personality, alternating between sweet tender airs to maniacal rages, with dollops of comic narcissism.

Imai Ayane (Amore) © Gabor Kotschy
Imai Ayane (Amore)
© Gabor Kotschy

Soprano Julia Hajnóczy had the lion’s share of soprano arias as the courtesan Silandra, as she swung between two different love interests with whom she also sang many duets. Hers is a young and pretty voice with wonderful potential; similarly, contralto Judit Anna Kiss, as Alidoro’s step-mother Aristea, revealed an exceptionally wide-ranged and powerful instrument in addition to a talent for comedy. As Philosophy and Creonte, soprano Theodora Raftis and baritone Attila Erdös respectively, shone vocally and dramatically in their characters as the Queen’s advisors.

At the musical helm was period music specialist and cellist Balázs Máté, who assembled a wondrous chamber orchestra that included a dulcian, recorders, shawms, archlute, Baroque guitar and violins, in addition to the more exotic basso di violino, viola da gamba lironata, and violone (the Baroque five-string bass). The results were dynamic, full-spectrum reedy textures, punctuated by a plummy deep bass resonance that hit the ear with a deliciously vigorous punch.

Máté kept the tempos at just the right notch to serve the singers’ coloratura and the life-force of the organism. Choreographer Noémi Kulcsár’s use of disco dance, hand jive, and contemporary street styles was cleverly woven in and among the many arias and instrumental interludes, helping to create an effervescent flow of events.

It’s a shame that this sparkling version of L'Orontea was only performed twice. It has the charm of the old and the pizzazz of the new that could have a viable future together.