The loves of Apollo and Dafne (Opera Pinchgut)
Francesco Cavalli was the top of pop in the 17th century. His Giasone, which premiered in 1649, has been performed more times than any other opera in this century and Pinchgut’s formidable production in 2013 made it a great selling point during this era as well. The company wins the jackpot again with Cavalli’s The loves of Apollo and Dafne, written for Venice’s premier commercial opera theater, Teatro San Cassiano.
Max Riebl as Cephalo and Alexandra Oomens as Aurora in Pinchgut Opera’s The loves of Apollo and Dafne. Photography © Brett Boardman
One can imagine that the Venetian public thoroughly appreciates the story of the gods who behave badly and that love has gone badly, on a flawless score. Apollo and Dafne is not as dramatically exciting as Giasone, it doesn’t have as many musical highlights either (it was only Cavalli’s second chance in the genre) but it does have the advantage of a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello that makes even thoughts take flight the most mundane. Busenello places his tangle of romances and desires in a dream world where anything is possible. His characters are shape-shifters, taking on many forms as they seek fulfillment (hence the plural of the title). Gods and humans mix, not everyone gets what they want, and life goes on.
Mitchell Butel’s production mostly takes place in intense color on the cheerful end of the spectrum, as seen in the cartoon set of Jeremy Allen and the stunning costumes of Melanie Liertz, and in characters of equally vivid hue. If you admit that the gods of Greek myth were the undisputed celebrities of the ancient world, it’s not a big step to align them with today’s multimedia personalities. So, Venus (Jacqueline Dark, dressed hilariously in lollipop-pink frou-frou) could be a star of The Real Housewives of Olympus. Apollo (swagger Max Riebl) is a very self-satisfied fitness guru. Probably an influencer. Amore (the wonderful Stacey Alleaume) is a smart mouthed, spiky hair skateboarder who undoubtedly has a big following on Tik Tok.
It’s very funny and very entertaining. Butel, however, expertly classifies things where it really matters, making the abandoned wife Procris (Alleaume again, glorious in Procris ‘lament at the end of the first act) deeply touching and Alexandra Oomans’ Dafne a bright young woman of courage and brilliant intelligence. These two characters give the opera its heart and their performers give the production its most brilliant song. Oomans dramatically doubles up as a super sexy Aurora, easily seducing Procris’ husband Cefalo, who is wonderfully played by Riebl. For Dafne, Oomans takes a firm and determined approach to music until Dafne’s melting end, and for Aurora his delicious soprano takes on all kinds of seductive colors.
Max Riebl as Cirilla and David Hidden as Alfesibeo in Pinchgut Opera’s The loves of Apollo and Dafne. Photography © Brett Boardman
Everyone in the distribution takes on double, triple or quadruple duties. Among the jewels are Riebl’s old woman, Cirilla, for whom he dirties his countertenor with great effect; and Dark’s (as Filena’s) advice to Dafne, in which Filena argues that life’s fleeting nature means love should not be rejected.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Ovid Metamorphosis provides The loves of Dafne and Apollo with its central plot. Apollo falls in love with Dafne, who has sworn to remain single. Pressed by the god, she chooses to turn into a laurel rather than give in to him. And that’s how it goes in Cavalli’s opera.
Dafne doesn’t play hard to get it. She doesn’t treat Apollo to keep him enthusiastic. David Raeburn’s 2004 translation of the Metamorphosis says it this way: “Imagine a greyhound, imagine a hare he saw in the open countryside: one running to capture its prey, the other for its safety.” What to do with such a tale? Butel succeeds by making Apollo a fool and Dafne radiantly sure of his choice. Its transformation takes place in the realm of metaphor. “She gets a tree change from all tree changes,” so Butel funny put it.
And let’s not go too deep into why Dafne is the one to change, not Apollo. It would be a different production. This Apollo and Dafne is full of light and fun, with just a touch of pain to add texture. But even Procris gets a little sunshine at the end in this sunniest production, in which Cavalli’s music is in the incomparably sure hands of Erin Helyard and a nine-member Antipodes orchestra, including the exquisite Hannah Lane harp. .
The loves of Apollo & Dafne plays at City Recital Hall, Sydney until May 26