La Dafne, BREMF Early Opera at The Old Market, Hove - review

Apollo sings of hope but Venus and Cupid (left) have their revenge
Apollo sings of hope but Venus and Cupid (left) have their revenge

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Marco da Gagliano’s ‘La Dafne’: BREMF Early Opera at The Old Market, Hove, on Saturday 8 and February 9 (3pm & 7.30pm), this the fourth performance. Directors: Deborah Roberts, Oliver Webber (music), Thomas Guthrie (stage). Music: Salomone Rossi, Christofano Malvezzi,

Venus, Sofia Kirwan-Vaez (sop); Cupid, Elspeth Piggott (sop); Dafne, Helen Lacey (sop); Tirsi, CN Lester (mezzo); Ovid (in intro) and Apollo, Rory Carver (tenor). Chorus – Nymphs: Angela Hicks (sop), Laura Lopez (mezzo); Shepherds: Sebastian Maclaine, Kieran White, Alex Ashurst (tenors), Geoff Williams (baritone).

Violins, Oliver Webber, Abel Balazs, Alice Poppleton; viola, Morag Johnston; bass violin & Lirone, Harry Buckoke; chitarrone, Jonatan Bougt, Sergio Bucheli; harpsichord, Claire Williams.

Whichever modern misbehaving god unleashed Storm Ciara along the coast on Sunday lost the match to defiant ticket buyers – all of whom reported in, alongside others paying at the door, intent on eavesdropping more love-matching mayhem from Cupid. His little arrows, mocked for their size by Apollo, spurned by Dafne, proved potent as ever while Ciara rushed, tore and lashed outside.

How Dafne wished she hadn’t been addicted to animal hunting, and Apollo how he’d not been such a playground bully. (Or maybe Dafne saw him coming – and knew Cupid’s tricks, too). As Ovid pre-told it, at Apollo’s ardent pass, Dafne fled like an antelope with he in pursuit. The moment Dafne sensed she’d lose the kiss chase, she froze into a tree – and far faster and more decisively than US president Trump’s trillion new ones.

At the base of its trunk was Apollo in bits. Tirsi, who saw it all, recounts to the shocked villagers who have barely recovered their nerve after Apollo saved them from a lethal monster with two of his much larger arrows. The villagers sweetly comfort the humiliated hero and decide Dafne is now being put to good use as noble arboreal assistance to humanity, providing more than just oxygen, and they praise love for the outcome.

If I sound like I’m treating jocularly all this frivolous classics stuff on which people base university degrees, it’s because I was reading producer Thomas Guthrie’s surtitles of Rinuccini’s libretto. In BREMF opera tradition, they’re colourful and fun.

La Dafne’s slender presence is with us less than 90 enjoyable minutes. The nymphs and shepherds are in a cross between what farm workers wore in The Archers during the 1930s and LS Lowrey barrow boy togs. Dour trousers everyone, nymphs with Mrs Mop headscarves, one in dungarees and T-shirt, shepherds in collarless shirts, waistcoats and cloth or tweed caps – and all in bare feet.

The gods look similar except with classier accessories. Dafne herself, lissom long blonde under her cap, sports a red neckerchief and tall smart boots. Cupid is slightly scrubbed up for the occasion in a light brown suit, trilby, smartish shoes and hearts-red tie. Apollo is suavely superior in a dark cravat and later awards himself a laurel wreath. Far more sophisticated, though, is Venus, in posh city hat, dress, elegant shoes, earrings, silk stockings (my educated guess), long coat and fur collar.

The musicians (aha, are they paid more?) are shod, belows their waistcoats, grandad tops or bulbous hero shirts, and dapper caps. I doff mine – being a wish-list cittaronist myself – to this evident societal respect for special talent.

BREMF Early Opera don’t banish their orchestra to a pit. It’s on view, flanking the stage front extension, in stereo, the five violins stage right, cittarone and harpsichord continuo opposite. They make a sumptuous sound with occasional vigour, frequent gravitas and sometimes warm wistfulness. They frame the always gracefully delivered dialogue, to almost exclusively lyrical music, and although barely any music gets up and dances, the deep lament of Tirsi’s news and its reaction brings to Scene 5 some welling-up moments.

The nymphs and shepherds make a sound far more divine than the divinities, the outnumbering men topped beautifully by one soprano and one mezzo. It’s really their show as the gods come and go off-stage, making Rory Carver’s expressive tenor as Apollo something to be savoured while it’s there.

Dafne makes her entrance, briefly pokes around for cowering wildlife, hobnobs a bit with the chorus, hears of Apollo’s monster hunting, fatally bumps into Apollo himself and flees – for good, because the chase and metamorphosis take place offstage.

Just as well. The two runners would get dizzy, dashing around in the confined space and surely knocking over music stands. And were realism the aim, Carver and Helen Lacey are young. I’d wager Leggy Lacey has the stamina and stride to reach Palmeira Square before capitulation, which would mean to keep pace with the drama we’d all have to brave the teeth of Storm Ciara down Western Road and huddle in the bus shelter to watch.

Among so much that’s genteel, albeit delightful, we have had one scare. In Scene 1, Apollo faces the chorus, all arms, legs and hisses, enacting the monster. Although that’s about as angry as the music ever gets. And we’ve had some comedy. When Apollo looks for some amusement, his discomfited mum, Venus, is the victim. Together they exchange family banter about her love affairs numerous enough for a double boxed set. And she backs his revenge on Apollo’s sneering.

In this BREMFunearthing from 1608, the year Monteverdi’s Orfeo made print, with its chatty and wry programme notes by Deborah Roberts, we are left to puzzle out why there are so many chairs randomly around onstage. From time to time they are stood on for height advantage, or manhandled quasi expressively during arias or choruses.

Then there’s a final revelatory, maybe symbolic, moment of theatrical wonder. In hymning their new Dafne tree as their enriching consolation and compensation, the bereaved villagers build it from the chairs, adding twigs and branches. That could prove a memorable image down the BREMF years. Indeed, already, check out the festival logo for BREMF 2020, 23 October - 8 November.

Richard Amey