Haymarket Opera’s excellent cast lifts Cesti’s “L’Orontea”

Sun Jun 03, 2018 at 3:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Emily Fons and Scott Brunscheen in Cesti’s “L’Orontea” at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Topher Alexander

“An immoderate passion has led you into great difficulty,” cautions the philosopher Creonte to Orontea, queen of Egypt.

That understatement is the overriding theme of Antonio Cesti’s L’Orontea, presented by Haymarket Opera Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater. Cesti’s opera will be repeated Sunday and Tuesday to close the company’s season.

L’Orontea is another 17th-century rarity resurrected by Chicago’s resident baroque opera company. The program notes that this Haymarket production likely marks only the opera’s second or third staged North American performances. (Music of the Baroque presented a concert version in 1998.)

The opera centers on Orontea, the title queen of Egypt who vows she will never fall in love. That pledge comes crashing to earth in the opera’s opening minutes when she meets the dashing painter Alidoro and is instantly smitten. Unfortunately, so irresistible is Alidoro that the court ladies Silandrea and Giacinta soon follow suit, earning the queen’s royal wrath. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Giacinta is masquerading as the pirate Ismero, and in her male disguise, she is stalked by Aristea, the randy mother of Alidoro. (The maternal role is performed here in drag by countertenor Drew Minter, adding yet another gender-bending twist.)

Cesti’s 1656 comic opera enjoyed great success in its day. While his music is attractive and lively, the dominant parlando style makes the evening’s first half a bit of a haul. (Haymarket is presenting the three-act opera in two acts with one intermission.) Musically, the opera improves after the interval, with greater depth and variety and more aria-like solo moments to break up the recitatives.

Alas, for a comedy, L’Orontea is only fitfully funny today; the characters’ extreme emotions and elaborate declarations of love and lust–the libretto is surprisingly bawdy at times–become repetitive and a bit tiresome. Finally, even by the traditions of the genre, the final denouement, concerning three identical medallions and Alidoro’s true identity is interminable. (Lorenzo da Ponte or W.S. Gilbert would have gotten the endless exposition over with in three lines.)

So, while L’Orontea is not in the same league musically as Marais’ Ariane et Bachus heard last fall–a high point of 2017–Haymarket Opera has fielded an excellent ensemble cast and served up their usual colorful production and scrupulous, historically aware advocacy.

It was especially good to have Emily Fons back on a Chicago stage in the title role. The Ryan Opera Center alumna was featured in several high-profile assignments during her Lyric Opera tenure yet, sadly, has been less of a local presence in recent seasons.

Her attractive mezzo-soprano seems to have grown even richer and more flexible. Though Orontea’s arias are few, Fons made each solo moment shine. She brought buoyant ardor to the queen’s Act 1 paean to freedom rather than constraining love. And Fons’s “Intorno all’idol mio” was simply gorgeous, sensitively sung with a deep vein of feeling.

Fons is also a superb actress, bringing dramatic credibility to her role even in this lightweight vehicle. In addition to Orontea’s poised dignity, this queen could also suddenly erupt in a scary regal rage. Let’s hope that Fons is seen more frequently in Chicago in the future.

The rest of the large cast was equally impressive.

Tall and heroic, Scott Brunchsheen was aptly dashing as Alidoro, singing with a rich, lyric tenor and clearly enjoying his devastating impact on the ladies of the Egyptian royal court.

David Govertsen proved amusing as the bibulous Gelone, broadly delivering the opera’s low comedy with the servant’s consistent inebriation.

As the on-again, off-again court couple Silandrea and Corindo, Nathalie Colas and Daniel Bubeck contributed some of the best singing of the evening. Colas brought an adorable and assured comic presence as well as a touching sadness in her farewell to Corindo. Bubeck’s high, sweetly mellifluous countertenor provided consistent pleasure throughout.

Minter had campy fun with the role of Aristea, Alidoro’s mother with the unslaked sexual appetite. Ryan de Ryke brought a warm, rounded baritone and ironic gravitas to the philosopher/advisor Creonte.

Soprano Addie Hamilton showed versatility and a youthful voice in the duo roles of Giacinta and Philosophy in the opera’s allegorical Prologue.  Likewise, the animated Kimberly Jones did energetic double duty as the page Tibrino and Love.

Minter and Sarah Edgar shared directing duties. At times the stylized hand gestures looked a bit stiff and awkward coming from the Haymarket newcomers (company regulars have imbibed the genre’s movements so thoroughly it feels more natural and organic). Yet the action flowed well and blocking was smooth, considering the challenges of moving a nine-member cast on a small unit set. Uneasy lay the crown on Alidoro’s head, which refused to stay in place, but otherwise the performance was free of opening-night glitches.

Even with just a small chamber group performing from the elevated pit, the playing was vital, stylish and colorful from violinists Jeri-Lou Zike and Marty Davids, bass violinist Craig Trompeter, theorbo Nigel North and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour.

L’Orontea will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Studebaker Theater.

Haymarket Opera opens its 2018-19 season with Handel’s Serse September 29-October 2. haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haymarket Opera’s excellent cast lifts Cesti’s “L’Orontea””

  1. Posted Jun 03, 2018 at 7:56 pm by Claude M. Weil

    It is difficult to know where to put l’Orontea in the operatic tapestry. It offers much enjoyable music and was well performed but its plot grows thin in this overly long work. Some judicious pruning would make it more appealing.

    Unlike most early operas in doesn’t deal with classical heroic figures and their activities. Its focal point is how to handle love while dealing with ones responsibilities. Is that why Cresti wrote it?

    Anyway, I’m glad to have had the chance to hear it.

    Thanks Haymarket.

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