The guy in the sky
Wilton's Music Hall
03/14/2003 - and 15, 18, 19, 20 March 2003
Francesco Cavalli: Orion
Louise Cannon (Diana), Annabel Larard (Diana's nymph), Benjamin Bevan (Filotero), Patrick Ardargh-Walker (Vulcan/Pluto), John Upperton (Steropes/Jove), Jérémie Lesage (Brontes/Charon), Kate Warshaw (Cupid), Yaniv D'Or (Orion), Pippa Longworth (Venus), Annalisa Whittlesea (Aurora), Hanna Wahlin (Aurora's nymph), Scott Johnson (Titone/Neptune), Brian Parson (Apollo)
Peter Foster (conductor), Kate Bannister (director)
François Lero Orchestra
The constellation of Orion, with three stars in a line forming the hero's belt, is the easiest of all to spot in the night sky, but he doesn't have a well-defined character or place in stories like the other ancient big fellas Herakles and Polyphemus. Most of the tales about Orion seem to be simple astronomical conceits: he goes to the bed of the dawn, Aurora, or pursues Diana, the moon, or is loved by her, but is prevented from possessing her by the arrival of her brother Apollo, the sun. But Orion's alternative consorts easily become rival goddesses, ancestresses of Handel's rival queens, in Cavalli and Melosio's divine romp of an opera from 1653, which manages to include every known ancient variant on Orion's story, even, obliquely, the one in Ovid's Fasti in which he is born the son of three gods who urinate on an ox hide. It is a less pervy confection than La Calisto, more a forerunner of Platée and La belle Hélène in the utter domesticity behind the extravagance: Apollo and Diana are squabbling siblings, Titone and Aurora Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, Venus and Vulcan aren't speaking but vie for control of their son Cupid, and Orion, a cheerful randy young chap, is accompanied everywhere and mothered grumpily by his faithful servant Filotero.
Melosio, however, was probably less interested in learning for its own sake than as a source of theatrical scenes and opportunities for machines, so as well as Orion's canonical visit to Vulcan's forge (bellows and hungover Cyclopes) we also get a sea monster, perhaps related to his nemesis the scorpion, and a visit to Hades, otherwise unattested though not unlike the one in Monteverdi's Orfeo. This production, by venetianOpera, had the great advantage of sponsorship by the Performing Arts programme of the London College of Fashion, which provided lavish costumes, make up and effects, all generally in a style appropriate to the 1870s (or so) heyday of the venue. Wilton's Music Hall turned out to be an ideal location for this sort of opera. The first purpose-build music hall in London, now stripped of its lights and mirrors but otherwise unimproved, it is small enough for the intimate drama, but still a superb theatrical space in which a funny-scary large blue sea-monster and a catafalque gondola, both wonderfully executed for brief spectacular appearances, do not seem out of place.
Kate Bannister, starting from the setting at the festival on the island of Delos, treated the action convincingly as Smiles of a summer night, or, perhaps better, given the Orion's death and the eventual reflective response to it, La regle du jeu at the seaside. The singers, predominantly graduates of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, were well on top of the required style, although there was perhaps not quite enough underlying tension or sense of complexity -- by the end of act 2, four different deities are out to get Orion, and he is doomed, but we really only got a sense of the danger from Filotero's panic. The singing, though, was wonderful. Louise Cannon's luscious Diana stood out, but the ensemble was generally superb. Yaniv D'Or's Orion might have been a touch lightweight vocally (though it was a good joke to have the butch wild man as an effete egotist), but he had the bravura style. Benjamin Bevan as the loyal Filotero, who just wants to go home, got most of the best lines in the unattributed translation, and gave a performance that was both thoroughly musical and thoroughly theatrical.
Cavalli has always looked like a good bet for hitherto unknown winners, and Orion confirms that this is the case. venetianOpera promise the world premiere of Cavalli's Eliogabalo, presumably a sort of post-dated Poppea, at Wilton's in the autumn.