Reviewed – 5th June 2021
“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.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Laurent Compagnon
Cockpit Theatre until 13th June
Shows reviewed by Dominica this year:
Minutes to Midnight
Reviewed – 18th September 2020
“From this unlikely subject matter, Sturt and Chapadjiev have created an extraordinary work of vivid contrasts”
Minutes to Midnight, Minute Hand Opera’s “avant-premiere” opera, with music by John Sturt and words by Sophia Chapadjiev, was created by a company working from locations as far apart as Chicago, New York and London. It’s a new opera that is part of a socially distanced live performance series at the Cockpit Theatre brought together by the Tête á Tête Opera Festival. But if you missed the September 16th performance in house, or the September 18th interactive broadcast online, don’t worry. Last night’s interactive broadcast will be available online for 28 days.
Minutes to Midnight is about two young American missileers—a term which describes the highly trained specialists who man the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile systems in silos dug into American’s heartland. Martínez and Walker, aged 24 and 22, are on duty the night of the 2016 election, awaiting the outcome of a highly divisive election. As we soon discover, the job of missileer lacks the dangers of the battlefield, despite the fact that these young men are at the controls of the deadliest weapons of them all. Instead, the missileers’ job is a constant struggle to maintain alertness in isolation, and to overcome boredom. All the while being ready to turn the keys that could reduce the world to ashes. As a defence against the same daily routines, they play card games when not studying or resting. It’s a solitary life at the bottom of a hole in a landscape that battles extremes of temperature as the seasons change.
From this unlikely subject matter, Sturt and Chapadjiev have created an extraordinary work of vivid contrasts. With the help of video excerpts depicting a choir of female singers in summer dresses outdoors in pastoral landscapes, Minutes to Midnight begins with God’s creation of the world and brings us rapidly to the moment in 1945 when nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The action then switches to a live broadcast of the two missileers in their silo, aka the stage of the Cockpit Theatre. As the missileers sing their story, they are periodically interrupted by director Eleanor Strutt, also on stage, who provides commentary on how Minutes to Midnight was created.
This production of Minutes to Midnight is forty minutes of what is obviously a much longer work. It is also an ingenious solution to the problem of bringing together a socially distanced cast and musicians for a limited amount of time. Given the subject matter, it’s a highly relevant nod to safe practices in both our nuclear and COVID-19 afflicted age. With safety concerns at the forefront, the audience, both socially distanced in the theatre, and online, is free to focus on the opera. The video chorus of the Trinity Set—Kerry Firth, Anna Marmion, and Kate Robson—is appropriately celestial in tone. Lawrence Gillians, as First Lieutenant A.J. Martínez, and Andrew Woodmansey, as Second Lieutenant Joseph Walker, on stage, are also very good as the young missileers. The musicians and the Radio Announcer (Mike Sturt) are all pre-recorded, but effective. Sturt’s music is the perfect foil for Chapadjiev’s libretto, covering a range of experiences from God’s creation of “tigers and beasts and dinosaurs” to the missileers’ mundane (and profane) experience of life in the silos. “It’s fucking freezing down here” and “winter nips at my balls” are just a couple of memorable lines in an opera that depicts life on the American plains. This study in extreme contrasts is just one of the rewards of Minutes to Midnight.
It’s difficult to assess the whole work from excerpts of course, but the version of Minutes to Midnight that Minute Hand Opera produced for 2020 is absolutely worth 40 minutes of your time online. There’s also a panel discussion “Who Holds the Bombs?” that follows. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Claire Shovelton
Minutes to Midnight
Previously reviewed by Dominica: