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CAVALLI - ORION venetianOpera
at Wilton's Music Hall, London 14 & 17 March 2003

Conductor: Peter Foster
Director: Kate Bannister

Concept design: Kate Bannister & Karl Swinyard
Lighting design: Hansjorg Schmidt
Costume design: Martin J Robinson
Make-up design: Penny Smith
Technical Effects design: Robert Allsopp

Cast: Louise Cannon; Yaniv D'Or; Benjamin Bevan; Kate Warshaw ; Pippa Longworth; Brian Parsons; Annalies Whittingsea; Scott Johnson; John Upperton; Scott Johnson; Patrick Ardagh-Walter; John Upperton;Annabel Larard; Jeremie Lesage; Hanna Wahlin

François Lero Orchestra: Director Peter Foster
orders Heidi Fardell, Kirsten Halliday
Violins Naomi Rogers (Leader), Shelly Britton, Felicity Broome-Skelton
Violas Ion Minoiu, Virginie Guiffray Cello Harriet Wiltshire
Bass Tomas Lopez Pereira Cruz

Orion at Wilton's a week after Susanna at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; this has been a great month for off-beat opera in London.

There are some 27 operas by Pier Francesco Cavalli in Venice's Marciana Library; the most significant body of work by a single composer tracing the early development of opera until it became an established art form. venetianOpera (that is how they style themselves) has its sights on more of them for modern revival. Orion (1653) has been given by Raymond Leppard (Santa Fé 1983, Edinburgh 1984) but perhaps not before in England, and there seems to be no recording.

Cavalli's 'quite extraordinarily illegible' manuscript is almost totally in his own hand. venetianOpera 'plundered' other scores for missing music between scenes and to improve the dramatic narrative and round off the three acts with vocal ensembles. Peter Foster and colleagues have produced an English translation of Francesco Melosio's libretto and a new performing edition, which I would think highly viable for staging elsewhere.

The François Lero Orchestra (who he?) - seven strings with two recorders - was unassumingly directed by Peter Foster from a small Colin Booth harpsichord. To my ears he got everything right, style and tempo relationships, and his unobtrusive authenticity was the lynch-pin for the success of the enterprise, but he was not even brought onto stage at the conclusion to acknowledge their essential contribution.

The involved story about Gods on Delos is the sort of mythological froth Offenbach revelled in. Its convolutions come across clearly, with admirable diction, and are set seamlessly to recitative and heightened arioso, rising to a great scene of Diana's lament after she has been tricked by Apollo (Brian Parsons) into shooting a 'sea monster', actually her lover Orion. The search for him down in the Underworld has resonances with Gluck's Orfeo and as delivered here by Louise Cannon was a moving centre to a more serious last Act. Her assumption of what turned out to be a chief role amongst a large cast - too many to mention everyone individually - had the stamp of greatness; a mellifluous voice and a beautiful actress to watch, with Israeli Yaniv d'Or, one of the very best counter tenors around, convincing as the love besotted Orion, doomed to eternal glory in the Heavens as the constellation which bears his name.

Pippa Longworth, Venus disguised as an old woman, and Kate Warshaw, a petulant Cupid, sow the seeds of tragedy by making goddesses Diana (of chastity) and Aurora (already married, Annalise Whittlesea) vie jealously for the love of Orion; it cannot end well. Orion is impervious to the warnings of the only clear headed character, Orion's human companion Filotero (Benjamin Bevan), who resists the amorous pursuit of Diana's charming nymph, Anabel Larard. The Gods rage and quarrel amongst themselves, and are only saved from a Gotterdammerung by the intervention of Jove (John Upperton), who puts it all down to Destiny. There is some impressive doubling amongst the smaller parts, Patrick Ardagh-Walter as Vulcan and Pluto (very complicated costume changes) notable.

This resourceful and inventive production was cast from strength amongst younger, well established professional singers, and it lacked only proper promotion to have hit the arts headlines; I got to see Orion (twice!) only by having been handed a flyer outside the Guildhall School of Music after their (equally admirable) Susanna - focused marketing, but not sufficient to achieve full houses.

What makes this production very special, not to be missed on any account, is the inspired collaboration with the London College of Fashion - their contribution a sheer delight. The students created a feast for the eyes with their degree course project, the elaborate costumes, lavish and full of fantasy,the extravagant make-up and props, and stunning technical effects, all lovingly created, and somehow enhanced by the bare surroundings in the unrestored one-time Victorian Music Hall, which in its heyday had mirrors covering the walls, and light provided by 'a gas-burning chandelier made from 27,000 cut crystals'. There were some amazing technical effects, a forge with huge bellows for Vulcan and his assistants to make the fateful arrow heads, an astonishing Sea Monster of vast proportions which turned Orion's human companion temporarily into a Rock, and Charon's magnificent funereal gondola.

A few minutes from the Tower of London, Wilton's Music Hall has proved an ideal base for Broomhill Opera, and this guest company can only enhance its reputation. Before it is too late, Orion should be filmed for video or DVD, and the cast should be kept together by venetianOpera for revival there and elsewhere.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Orion runs until March 20; cast, synopsis and booking (on line, or by telephone: 0870 904 2003)

© Peter Grahame Woolf