“a treat to see emerging young opera stars tackle less well known works”
L’Egisto, billed as a showcase for advancing young singers by the Hampstead Garden Opera, does just that in this new version of the 1643 opera at the Cockpit Theatre. Francesco Cavalli, the composer of L’Egisto (with libretto by Giovanni Faustini), was a pupil of Monteverdi, and enjoyed great success in his own time. Despite languishing forgotten until his rediscovery in the 1970s, Cavalli is now gaining popularity once again. It’s easy to see why. The opera provides lots of opportunities for the stars to show their singing abilities, and there’s even enough drama to keep the characters interesting. Some of the tropes may seem outlandish to modern eyes (Egisto’s mad scene for example) and it’s difficult to sympathize with the gods’ petty meddling in the lives of the unfortunate lovers. But there is a freshness and charm to the unfolding of events, plus some wonderful comic roles for minor characters. This opera is a perfect choice of vehicle for young singers in that regard.
The Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of L’Egisto is easy on the ears, with a talented orchestra and some outstanding voices, but fails, however, to impress the eyes to the same degree. Some choices were forced upon the company, since we are still emerging from the pandemic. Nevertheless, staging L’Egisto with an audience carefully socially distanced on three sides shouldn’t have had problematic sight lines that could have easily been eliminated if the stage had been less cluttered. With performing space at a premium in the Cockpit, it was difficult to see how the addition of shiny disks and gauzy drapes could add much, other than to distract the audience from the performers, and the performers from focusing on each other. The production itself was long; the pace appropriately measured. This production of L’Egisto would have benefitted from more economy of staging, and perhaps more attention to the performers’ costumes which seemed at variance with the opera’s setting and themes.
Setting aside, this is an ambitious production that has two casts alternating with each other for each performance. This is a great idea given the length of each performance and the fact that the company is performing twice daily. In the matinee I attended, I saw Kieran White (tenor) take on the role of Egisto with believable passion and musical dexterity, and he was well matched with his Clori (Shafali Jalota, soprano). The baroque orchestra, under the direction of Marcio da Silva, was a pleasure to listen to. They were also well placed at the back of the performing space, so that the audience could see as well as hear them.
If you are curious about baroque opera, and have yet to make Cavalli’s acquaintance, I encourage you to see this production. It’s also a treat to see emerging young opera stars tackle less well known works like L’Egisto.
“The humour is rebellious yet highly intelligent; and subversive to boot”
The series of military tribunals that constituted the Nuremberg Trials led, in part, to the establishment of the United Nations. The chief indictments at the trials included genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and targeted those who planned, carried out or participated in the Holocaust. The political and military leaders of Nazi Germany. There was another little-known faction, however, which has hitherto slipped through the annals of history. The ‘special section for degenerate objects’. An implausible idea – and fictitious of course, but by the end of the STIGMAcollective’s absurdist drama it doesn’t actually feel that far-fetched.
The two protagonists are a pair of shoes that were worn by Magda Goebbels. Their major crime was to have survived. That they didn’t burn. Oh, and that they contributed to the extermination of a nation. Already the question of crime by association has been thrown into the ring and we haven’t yet learnt what became of the shoes as they are passed down to subsequent owners. Forever the scapegoat, they are repeatedly discarded and then given a new, unexpected lease of life. But they never really escape their role of downtrodden victims. These boots ain’t made for walking, but talking’s what they do. And, yes, they are gonna talk all over you.
Rosa French and Francesca Isherwood, as the two shoes, both give captivating performances. There are elements of nonsense in Sebastian Majewski’s script that French and Isherwood tackle with an assured command of the style. The humour is rebellious yet highly intelligent; and subversive to boot. There is little disguising the underlying message; a message enhanced by back projections that merge original, vintage footage with modern day scenes high on our political agenda. History has a way of repeating itself, and this show’s stylistic concept reflects that quite ingeniously. There is a cyclical repetition; and the shoe’s story and dialogue are repeated. But each time another layer is added, and we sympathise more with their disdain for some of the characters that wear them. What does jar occasionally, however, is the accusatory tone that they also sometimes use to address to the audience. “Our punishment is coming to an end. But yours is just beginning.” It does little to get us on their side, which unfortunately can weaken the importance of the message.
But the characters are fascinating, and their fates quite harrowing – whether deserved or not. The shoes pass from perpetrators to victims, and back again. From a doctor’s wife to a collaborator, from the theatre to the streets of Poland, from the murderers to the murdered. Connor McLean’s music and evocative soundscape charge the atmosphere, matching the tension of the dialogue. Occasionally, though, style overrides the substance, and the chronological twists can confuse.
It is a shame that the current lockdown forced this to be a streamed presentation. It is an intriguing piece of theatre that will, hopefully, be repeated once audiences are allowed back into our theatres. There are many layers indeed to this production and it warrants multiple viewing. At its heart it questions our understanding of history. As mentioned, we see history twice in this show; the second time from a different perspective as extra (more shocking) detail is added. Although the focus is on writer Sebastian Majewski’s native Poland (a nation that has had its history re-written several times in living memory), the wider controversies kicked around by this pair of shoes is global. “Right left with heels” is as thought provoking as it is entertaining.