Antonio Cesti, one of opera’s earliest composers, also fits into one of opera’s recurring stereotypes: the dirty cleric. Usually, these make the best librettists (cf. Mozart’s brilliant Lorenzo da Ponte), but Father Cesti was firmly of a musical bent, not only composing, but actually appearing on the opera stage singing title roles, which earned him stern threats of excommunication from an unimpressed Vatican. Orontea itself, lost for 300 years, dates from Cesti’s tactful diplomatic holiday from Italy, some five years he spent in Innsbruck after enraging his fellow Franciscan monks by a steamy affair with a soprano. Cesti doesn’t seem to have been overly abashed by this interlude: the penniless artist Alidoro, who is raised to wealth and power by Queen Orontea’s passion, albeit with a few hiccups along the way, is thought to be a humourous self-parody of Cesti, whose friar’s vows of poverty, chastity and obedience didn’t seem to hold him back from much in life.

While Orontea’s plot is a reasonably predictable late Renaissance grouping of star-crossed lovers, confusion, and reversals of fate all building to a happy resolution, it has two aspects of real interest. One is the plot’s trembling balance between the rarefied emotions of courtly love (exemplified by Orontea’s instant adoration for Alidoro) and the commoner lusts of less noble characters (as Aristea, Alidoro’s mother, falls hungrily and hormonally for a ‘boy’ who is in fact Giacinta, a slave girl in disguise), a contrast which inspired Chaucer and Shakespeare. Another is the constant choice offered between love and alcohol, which are seen as mutually exclusive – rather than compatible – pursuits, with the drunkard Gelone (a very early example of a comic Silenus type, finding his finest operatic expression in Don Magnifico from Rossini’s La Cenerentola) voting for wine every time. These constant comparisons between different life choices come across musically as continuous, dynamic changes of style and tempo: Cesti even has a bravura duet which switches neatly (and impressively) between two distinct time signatures from voice to voice. In one of Cesti’s most daring touches, the score itself threatens to nod off into silence altogether as Gelone descends into a drunken sleep.

La Nuova Musica threw themselves into Cesti’s fearsome kinetic challenges with enthusiasm and panache, handling all his ever-changing tempi with rich tone in an evening of joyous music-making. The concert performance had structure and narrative force, thanks to strongly characterised performances from the singers, directed by David Bates, as well as some remarkably lewd rhyming surtitles by Timothy Knapman, definitely more Boccaccio than Boethius, dipping into modern patois (“he is, like, well buff”) as well as brassy puns (“phallic cymbals”). While some exchanges were eye-poppingly crude, always raising the anxiety that the translation might be trying too hard to shock, they certainly conveyed the fact that a night spent with Fr Cesti is no staid evening of polite entertainment. Quite the reverse.  

Above all, the singing was a treat. Jonathan McGovern gave us a splendid Alidoro, sensitively acted, and always sung with control which could create vulnerability as well as volume: attractive and appealing, Alidoro was the believable centre of the piece around whom all lust (high and low) revolved. Mary Bevan shone as Silandra, the sassy servant girl who almost wins Alidoro from the queen, dazzling us with her ornamentation while also conveying real wit and humour in a superb performance.

Sam Furness gained plenty of laughs in his pearls-and-evening-dress drag as Aristea, but played her intelligently straight, only camping it up once he knew he had the audience’s interest in a strong, sustained performance which used his natural tenor as well as a few soft, feminine high notes which were more beautiful than mere falsetto. Timothy Dickinson’s smooth bass sounded magnificent as Creonte, philosopher-cum-fun-police, who berates Orontea for not marrying, then disapproves of her choice. Christopher Turner gave one of the strongest dramatic performances of the evening as the soldier Tibrino, his tenor always generous with warm energy and his Italian beautifully crisp, especially in Tibrino’s scathing set piece aria which bewails women’s use of makeup.

Anat Edri’s strikingly cool, clean soprano sounded fresh and inspiring, and her Giacinta grew steadily in conviction and impact. Anna Stéphany gave us a richly sung, but dramatically subdued Orontea, not always connecting effectively with her audience, and often hazing her consonants, detracting from her otherwise lovely singing. Michal Czerniawski grew in assurance as Corindo, failing to gain much dramatic traction in his first couple of scenes despite his sweet countertenor and nimble ornamentation, but improving continuously as the night went on to culminate in a showstopping “O cielo”, when Clorindo regrets his choice of love, with wonderful control and projection. Edward Grint, dapper in a midnight blue velvet smoking jacket, gave us an excellent character turn as the lovable bass drunkard Gelone, who assures us that “You won’t live longer if you give up drink; it’ll just seem longer…”