Local Arts Reviews


First English Lutheran Church, April 24

Antonio Cesti's 1656 opera, L'Orontea, has so much in common with Gilbert and Sullivan – stock characters, class-crossing forbidden romances, disguises, clever wordplay, an unabashedly light and lovely melodicism, and a preposterous deus ex machina ending that unites the cast to sing of the joys of love – that G&S seems less a parody of this antique style and more a throwback to it.

The Texas Early Music Project's concert rendering of this Baroque gem in the acoustically ideal setting of First English Lutheran Church left no doubt as to its musical pleasures, expertly performed by an ensemble of singers and a 10-piece Baroque orchestra formed by the core of Austin's seasoned early music community.

The Egyptian Queen Orontea was sung by the formidable Stephanie Prewitt, who, while providing perhaps the most reserved acting in the performance, brought a sighing beauty to Cesti's affecting melodies. Upon announcing that she needs no man, the queen immediately becomes hopelessly smitten with the mysterious young painter Alidoro (David Stevens, who also conducted), who is fleeing the vengeance of a Phoenician princess he has spurned. His good looks are so dangerous that he breaks up a romance between Corindo (Andrew Hallock) and Silandra (Amy Brumley) just after they deliver a sweetly affectionate duet on their undying love.

The ripple of realigning liaisons makes its way around the cast and reaches its comic peak as Alidoro's mother, Aristea (Danny Johnson, who also conducted), becomes enamored of – make that hot for – Ismero (Lara Britton), unaware that Ismero is really a woman, Giacinto, in disguise. Because it was not sung in costume, the scene offered the twisted spectacle of Johnson as a woman singing to Britton playing a woman disguised as a man.

Without costumes, sets, or formal staging and with hardly enough information in the libretto to help one follow such layers and twists, the synopsis was critical. For each scene, the singers would join together at the steps of the church's smallish altar, almost always with music in hand, and some seldom lifting their eyes from the page.

At the other extreme, it's hard to take on a comic role by halves. Austin Lyric Opera veteran Brett Barnes threw his considerable stage experience into the part of the wine-loving servant Gelone, drawing the heartiest laughs from specific pews. But the reserved acting of the rest of the cast threw Barnes' comedy into even greater relief, as if he'd been invited to a costume party and was the only person who had dressed up. As the page Tibrino, Lauren Zachry-Reynolds showed a remarkable ability to step away from the more illustrative acting style of the rest of the cast to flesh out her interactions with Barnes, all aided by a fresh vocal buoyancy that suited her role well.

The cast all came together for the finale, which is pure Gilbert and Sullivan: a denouement in which we learn that Alidoro was really a prince abducted as a baby by pirates. Now free to marry, the queen and Alidoro unite with the other couples and cast members in a chorus to sing to us the joys of love.

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L'Orontea, Antonio Cesti, Texas Early Music Project's concert rendering of this Baroque gem in the acoustically ideal setting of First English Lutheran Church

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