Certain things can only be understood in candlelit shadows, where dim lights force the eye to invent what remains unseen. As our relationship with artistic creations from the past is never straightforward, we must play an active role in the shivering and fragile act of communication that takes place during an operatic performance. This is why celebrated French director Benjamin Lazar’s journeys to the 17th century are, above all, a feat of radical contemporary re-imagination of opera. Casting away the pitfalls of historicism, his historical accuracy does not intend to provide a pale dummy of a Baroque opera, but rather gives birth to a creature that never existed before, an imperfect and fascinating reflection of a lost world composed of echoes and illusions. In the farcical tragedy of Egisto, Lazar has found a perfect vehicle to realise his compelling artistic discourse.

Egisto © Pierre Grosbois
Egisto
© Pierre Grosbois

During the past decade, Cavalli’s operas have been receiving increasing attention, following the landmark production of La Calisto by René Jacobs and Herbert Wernicke in 1993. This Egisto, a coproduction that finally came to Luxembourg after being presented in Paris (Opéra Comique) and Rouen, is the latest fruit of Lazar’s laudable partnership with Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique. After diving into the origins of French tragédies en musique with Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, they have now focused on another seminal moment in the history of opera, when, in 1643, the dialogue between Monteverdi and Cavalli was to lay the foundations of Italian dramma per musica. First performed in Venice, just a few months after L’incoronazione di Poppea, Egisto presents some clear features of an evolving genre: ariosos that tried to break away from the continuous recitative, orchestral outbursts of energy intended to rouse the attention of a new urban audience, a rich set of ever more human and three-dimensional characters, and, most importantly, one of the first explorations of madness as a driving force of the plot, which was to become an infinite source of dramatic inspiration in the history of opera.

Egisto’s story is much more than what it seems at first blush. After fleeing the pirates who hold him captive for a year, Egisto comes back to his former lover, Cloris, only to find her in the arms of young Lidio. Spurned by Cloris, Egisto is assailed by a strike of follia that proves to be the true axis of the drama. Faustini’s vibrant libretto presents the story as an unbalanced interaction between mildly grotesque gods, existentially involved in mortal affairs, and humans, who blindly endure the whim of these gods. Gestures, costumes and sets (enhanced by masterful candlelight) are carefully devoted to underscoring this tragicomic dichotomy. The central rotating structure that frames the action, designed by Adeline Caron, is then divided into two floors. The basement is earthy and bucolic, made of ivied red-brick walls, whereas the top consists of a circle of half-destroyed arcs, a ruined Olympus open to the sky where the gods struggle to retain their fading majesty. In his visionary and genuinely human furore, Egisto is the first mortal character that dares to cross the boundary between these two worlds, thus changing the course of the action and making divine intervention irrelevant. In this sense, Egisto replicates and develops, with a more sophisticated operatic language and in a less solemn tone, the myth of Orpheus (not by chance the first opera), another hero who tries to break human natural constraints. In this (candle) light, the final duo between Egisto and Clori, “T’abbraccio, ti stringo, ti godo”, a beautiful twin of Monteverdi’s (or probably Cavalli’s) “Pur ti miro”, is not only a joyful celebration of sensual love, but also a final and subtle blow to the pallid gods.

In order to replicate the conditions of Egisto’s original performance, Dumestre has reduced the orchestra to its simplest form, limited to strings and two flutes, which provide a charming pastoral colour. With these elements, Dumestre is able to convey a nuanced palette of tones, yet always keeping within a severely restricted expressive range. Although his language lacks contrast, italianità and Venetian clout, his sober and subtle ways perfectly match Lazar’s visual code. All the singers were equally committed to a highly demanding, multifaceted method that combines body, gesture, voice and text. Marc Mauillon stood out as a brilliant Egisto, with his clear voice of lyric baritone and some powerful phrasing in his mad scene. Cyril Auvity, a brilliant specialist in 17th-century opera, seemed nevertheless uncomfortable in the ungrateful role (and tessitura) of Hipparco. On the other hand, Ana Quintans, with a childish presence and a perfect control of vibrato, was in her element as Amore. The pleasant surprise of the night was 26-year-old Reinoud Van Mechelen, a talented champion in the rediscovery of the Baroque French tenor (or haute-contre), in the role of Lidio.

This Egisto was thus a fascinating journey to the origins of Italian opera, a reflection on the limits of historicist reconstruction, and a true revival of a neglected opera, even if the musical rendition was not entirely flawless. It was, in sum, a privileged opportunity to admire Lazar’s aesthetic achievements and witness a fugacious Baroque illusion. A true feast for the senses.