Opera is a fairly recent art form: the first work generally accounted as an opera dates from 1597 and is largely lost, though the libretto survives. Eleven years later, that same text – La Dafne – was set in revised form by the Florentine composer Marco da Gagliano, who was working at the time at the Mantuan court, where Monteverdi had recently produced his Orfeo.
Based on the myth of Dafne, who escapes Apollo’s unwelcome advances by turning into a laurel tree, Gagliano’s neglected score was a good choice for this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival, where a talented cast of young singers and an excellent eight-piece instrumental ensemble match the scale of the piece and the venue perfectly.
Played out on a small platform with the musicians to either side, Thomas Guthrie’s simple yet clear and effective production deserves to have an afterlife and could work in many settings.
Though he remains in Monteverdi’s shadow, Gagliano produced a highly attractive score mixing songs with short madrigal-like choruses and expressive recitative – here the instrumental interludes were the work of the earlier Cristofano Malvezzi and Gagliano’s contemporary Salomone Rossi.
It’s curious, though, that the heroine herself has no big scene at the point when the transformation occurs – an event is instead narrated: though admittedly having someone turning into a tree on stage is not that easy.
There is high-quality vocalism throughout, with particular standouts from sopranos Helen Lacey (Dafne), Sofia Kirwan-Baez (Venus) and Elspeth Piggott (Cupid), as well as tenor Rory Carver’s striking doubling of Ovid with Apollo.