Francesco Cavalli was top of the pops in the 17th century. His Giasone, which premiered in 1649, was performed more times than any other opera during that century and Pinchgut’s terrific production in 2013 made a great case for it in this age too. The company hits the jackpot again with Cavalli’s The Loves of Apollo & Dafne, written for Venice’s first commercial opera theatre, Teatro San Cassiano.
Max Riebl as Cephalo and Alexandra Oomens as Aurora in Pinchgut Opera’s The Loves of Apollo & Dafne. Photograph © Brett Boardman
One can imagine the Venetian public thoroughly enjoying the tale of gods behaving badly and love gone wrong, set to an unfailingly tuneful score. Apollo & Dafne isn’t as dramatically exciting as Giasone, nor does it have as many musical highlights (it was only Cavalli’s second shot at the genre) but it has the advantage of a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello that makes even the most commonplace thoughts take wing. Busenello places his tangle of romances and desires in a dream world where anything could be possible. His characters are shape-shifters, taking on many guises as they search for fulfilment (hence the plural of the title). Gods and humans mingle, not everyone gets what they want, and life goes on.
Mitchell Butel’s production mainly plays out in intense colours at the jolly end of the spectrum, as seen in Jeremy Allen’s cartoon-land set and Melanie Liertz’s eye-popping costumes, and in characters of correspondingly vivid hue. If you accept that the gods of Greek myth were the undisputed celebrities of the ancient world, it’s no great leap to align them with today’s multimedia personalities. Thus Venus (Jacqueline Dark, hilariously attired in lolly-pink frou-frou) could be a star of The Real Housewives of Olympus. Apollo (swaggering Max Riebl) is a highly self-satisfied fitness guru. An influencer probably. Amore (the wondrous Stacey Alleaume) is a smart-mouthed, spiky-haired skateboarder who doubtless has a big following on Tik Tok.
It’s very funny and highly entertaining. Butel, though, expertly dials things down where it really matters, making deserted wife Procris (Alleaume again, glorious in Procris’s lament at the end of the first act) deeply touching and Alexandra Oomens’ Dafne a shining young woman of fortitude and bright intelligence. These two characters give the opera its heart and their performers give the production its most shining singing. Oomens doubles up spectacularly as the super-sexy Aurora, easily seducing Procris’s husband Cefalo, who is wonderfuly played by Riebl. For Dafne, Oomens takes a firm, single-minded approach to the music up until Dafne’s melting end, and for Aurora her delectable soprano takes on all manner of seductive colours.
Max Riebl as Cirilla and David Hidden as Alfesibeo in Pinchgut Opera’s The Loves of Apollo & Dafne. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Everyone in the cast takes on double, triple or quadruple duty. Among the gems are Riebl’s old woman Cirilla, for whom he dirties up his countertenor to great effect; and Dark’s advice (as Filena) to Dafne, in which Filena argues that the fleeting nature of life means love should not be rejected.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides The Loves of Dafne & Apollo with its central plot strand. Apollo falls for Dafne, who has vowed to remain single. Pressed by the god, she chooses to be transformed into a laurel tree rather than give in to him. And so it comes to pass in Cavalli’s opera.
Dafne is not playing hard to get. She doesn’t treat Apollo mean to keep him keen. David Raeburn’s 2004 translation of the Metamorphoses puts it this way: “Imagine a greyhound, imagine a hare it has sighted in open country: one running to capture his prey, the other for safety.” What to do with such a tale? Butel manages by making Apollo foolish and Dafne radiantly sure of her choice. Her transformation takes place in the realm of metaphor. “She gets a tree change of all tree changes,” is how Butel has amusingly put it.
And let’s not go too deeply into why Dafne is the one who has to change, not Apollo. That would be a different production. This Apollo & Dafne is full of light and pleasure, with just a touch of pain to add texture. But even Procris is given a little measure of sun at the end in this sunniest of productions, in which Cavalli’s music is in the incomparably safe hands of Erin Helyard and a crack nine-member Orchestra of the Antipodes, including the exquisite harp of Hannah Lane.
The Loves of Apollo & Dafne plays at the City Recital Hall, Sydney until 26 May