San Francisco Conservatory of Music's young artists went way back in time to present an opera three-and-a-half centuries old, last weekend in Fort Mason Center's Cowell Theater. Richard Harrell, director of the Conservatory's Opera Theater, has bravely (and judging by the results, wisely) selected Francesco Cavalli's 1643 L'Egisto, a sensation in its time, but virtually impossible to find performed today. Harrell was also stage director of the production, which was visually defined by Dean Shibuya's occasionally jerky, at times confusing, projections. These included an image of Delos looking for all the world like Teotihuacan. Cavalli was along for the ride at the birth of public opera performances in Venice, as Monteverdi's student at St. Mark's Cathedral. L'Egisto joined Monteverdi's 1641 The Return of Ulysses, and 1642 The Coronation of Poppea, spreading the popularity of opera through Italy and then all over Europe. It's the Conservatory’s obligation, and privilege to present works like L'Egisto, something beyond the ability of most commercial companies. Cavalli brings up bittersweet memories of San Francisco s Spring Opera program, which met its demise during a previous San Francisco Opera administration. Unlike the parent organization, whose first obligation is to keep afloat financially and gather a large audience, Spring Opera could and did take risks, memorable ones. In 1974, it presented Cavalli's L'Ormindo in the Curran Theater, and the cast included such then-young talent as Maria Ewing, Barbara Hendricks, Gwendolyn Jones, Grayson Hirst, and Philip Booth. I wish S.F. Opera's David Gockley success in his quest to bring Spring Opera back to life.John Adams concerts.) Music must carry the show because the story is hopeless. There are four pages of synopsis in the program, you get dizzy with the profusion of supertitles, and yet ... it's hard to say what's going on. Apparently, in lieu of TV soaps, the 17th century enjoyed its convoluted love stories in opera librettos of the kind Giovanni Faustini delivered for L'Egisto. There are feuding gods and lovers falling in and out of love. There is Amor, or Cupid (Erica Schuller on Thursday and Dana Atwood on Sunday, with anachronistic, but fetching blond bobs), getting into no end of trouble, including a hilarious dustup with the ghosts of four great heroines who died because of love (Semele, Phaedra, Dido, and Hero, each of whom got operas of their own many times over in subsequent centuries). In the beginning, Night and Aurora fight over the primacy of darkness or light. At the end, Hours sing of the passage of time, but much else has happened. The central plot, is like A Midsummer Night's Dream with its two pairs of lovers with their fast-changing allegiances, plus the Oberon-Titania tiff. The title character is a son of Apollo, not much helped by his semidivinity, who goes through many hardships and loses the love of Clori. Then there is a character called Lidio, who is switching back and forth between Clori and Climene. Egisto wins Clori back in the end, but not before going insane and performing one of opera's very first mad scenes.
Cavalli’s Advocates, on Stage and in the PitIs Cavalli's music as grand as Monteverdi's? Not quite, but the Conservatory production made an excellent case for the opera’s musical values, with an amazing young singer in the title role and a red-hot orchestra, mostly of students, under the firm, loving direction of Christopher Larkin.
All photos by Rory McNamaraThe conductor himself and Darryl Cooper played harpsichord. Also in the continuo section: faculty member Richard Savino on theorbo, and students Paul Psarras, on Baroque guitar; and Hallie Pridham on cello (modern). The rest of the orchestra, with Edwin Huizinga as concertmaster, was made up of students, and they just ate up the score, rising to astonishing heights of ensemble performance. (The same orchestra also played fabulously at the Conservatory's recent