Review: From the beginning of (operatic) time

San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s young artists go way back in time to present one of the earliest operas — nearly four centuries old — at Fort Mason Center’s Cowell Theater.

Richard Harrell, director of the Conservatory’s Opera Theater bravely (and judging by the results, wisely) selected Francesco Cavalli’s 1643 “L’Egisto,” a sensation in its time, but impossible to find anywhere in the world today. Harrell is also stage director of the production, which has Dean Shibuya’s occasionally jerky, sometime confusing projections; his Delos looks like Teotihuacan.

Western opera dates back to Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643); Cavalli was along the ride at the genre’s birth as Monteverdi’s student at St. Mark’s in Venice. “L’Egisto” joined Monteverdi’s 1641 “The Return of Ulysses” and 1642 “The Coronation of Poppea” in spreading the popularity of opera in Italy, then all over Europe.

Is Cavalli’s music as grand and lasting as Monteverdi’s? Not quite, but in this Conservatory production, an excellent case is being made for its musical values, with a red-hot orchestra under the firm and loving direction of Christopher Larkin.

The conductor and DarrylCooper on harpsichords, Paul Psarras on guitar, and Richard Savino on theorbo (a gigantic lute) — all faculty members — were the heart of accompaniment.

The rest of the student orchestra, with Edwin Huizinga as concertmaster, ate up the score, rising to astonishing heights of ensemble performance.

Music must carry the show because the story is hopeless. The synopsis takes up four pages in the program and the profusion of English supertitles is dizzying.

Apparently, in lieu of TV soaps, the 17th century enjoyed convoluted love stories of the kind Giovanni Faustini’s libretto delivered for “L’Egisto.” There are feuding gods, and lovers falling in and out of love.

Amor or Cupid (Erica Schuller, with an anachronistic but fetching blond bob ’do) gets 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.

For the central plot, think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and its lovers with their fast-changing allegiances.

The title character (sung by a wonderful tenor, Eleazar Rodriguez) is a son of Apollo, not much helped by his semi-divinity, going through many hardships, losing the love of Clori (soprano Katie Gerber).

A character called Lidio (Elana Cowen, in a trouser role), switches back and forth between Clori and Climene (Evgenia Chaverdova, a tiny singer with a huge voice and talent to burn).

Egisto wins Clori back in the end, but not before going insane, just in time to perform one of opera’s very first mad scenes.

The singers are double-cast, except Rodriguez is in all performances — a tough assignment, especially considering the short break between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

IF YOU GO

L’Egisto

Presented by San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15 to $20

Contact: (415) 345-7575 or www.sfcm.edu

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