In 1607 Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, came up with a rather original way to celebrate Carnival at his court. It was inspired by something he’d seen in Florence a few years earlier in 1600, when he’d been a guest at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France. He’d been deeply impressed by the main entertainment offered at the festivities: a new kind of play, set to music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (who’d already produced a similar work called Dafne in 1597).
The production designed for the wedding was called Euridice and it was a fitting story of the triumph of love over death (considering the circumstances, Peri and Caccini had given it a happy ending). It had such an effect on Vincenzo that, seven years later, he asked his maestro della musica to come up with something similar, and better, to divert his court during the festive season. That maestro was Claudio Monteverdi; the resulting production was Orfeo; and the rest, as they say, is history. Orfeo wasn’t the first opera, but it was the first time that story, music and drama came together in quite such a compelling synthesis.
The Royal Opera’s new production of Orfeo is a collaboration with the Roundhouse in Camden, a venue more associated with Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones than Monteverdi, and the unusual location gave the production a stripped-back emotional charge that I don’t think would have been possible in the grand surroundings of Covent Garden. Even the poster that went up across the Underground network a few months ago felt different from the usual Royal Opera flyers: it was simple, dramatic and very cool (and why not? After all, Orpheus was the first rock star). The designer should be commended.
Inside the Roundhouse, it was all very austere, kept to the absolute essentials: the odd chair; a gallery from which Pluto, Prosperina and Apollo surveyed proceedings; a few ropes; and, most significantly, a ramp leading from the stage up over the audience towards the heavens. I happened to be sitting right beside that ramp, so much of the action happened virtually in my lap; but no matter where you sat, I’m sure you would have felt the same immediacy. Performed in the round, this was an Orfeo that brought you face-to-face with the desire, the joy and the unbearable agonies of loss. Even if the performances had been mediocre, it would have been a memorable experience.
However, the strikingly young cast were also extremely impressive. I’d been looking forward to seeing Christopher Lowrey in the flesh – I noted him in Cavalli’s Elena – and was very pleased by him, although I felt that Cavalli offered him slightly more scope than Monteverdi to display the full possibilities of his refined countertenor. He was the only singer I knew in advance; but the others struck me equally strongly: if I had to pick out individuals then I would note Callum Thorpe’s Pluto and Rachel Kelly’s Prosperina.
For much of the production they simply watched from above – a slim, preternaturally beautiful pair who looked as much like languid vampires as Greek gods – and when they finally came down to sing, they were worth waiting for: Thorpe’s strong, beautifully-controlled bass-baritone underlying Kelly’s gorgeous pure soprano. Kelly particularly impressed me because she managed to convey the passionate intensity of Prosperina’s attachment to Pluto, coupled with the lingering remnants of her desire to return to the upper world. There was a clever moment when, having made her plea for Euridice to be freed, she glanced up the ramp towards the golden light of the sun, and seemed to be drawn towards it, for just a moment, until Pluto drew her back down into thralldom and the dark. Beautifully done.
The dual role of Euridice and Music was performed by Mary Bevan (sister of Sophie, who played Ilia to Fagioli’s Idamante in Idomeneo). Her voice captured me from the word go: it was warm and rich and lyrical. Equally importantly in a role that required a lot of acting and not a huge amount of singing, she was a very eloquent physical performer. Her dignity and pathos in the prologue, when she cradled Orfeo’s body in her arms (on which more below), gave way to an infectious delight in the opening wedding sequence – and then a gentle, subdued grace during the underworld sections. She was lovely to watch and I hope to see much more of her, hopefully in a role where she can make slightly more use of that beautiful voice.
Being unfamiliar with Orfeo, I hadn’t realised that so much of it is pretty much a one-man show. The success of the production rests very heavily on the shoulders of its Orfeo, especially in a show like this where singers and audience are so close to one another. Fortunately, it was in very safe hands. Gyula Orendt proved to be the stroke of magic that brought the rest to life, transforming the story from a dusty distant myth to an agonisingly intense exploration of love, death and sacrifice. His earnest, eager Orfeo was completely endearing, from his almost goofy delight at getting the girl of his dreams in the opening scene, to the moment when his happiness visibly crumbled away as Silvia delivers the news of Euridice’s death. He was living every inch of the role, and I say that with authority because he collapsed on the ramp mere feet from my head, and his grief was so palpable as to be almost painful to watch. He was actually crying. And to be so close to it, so involved, meant that you were grabbed by the throat and dragged into the drama in a way that would be very hard in a normal opera house.
And Orendt seemed to be very strong technically as well: I’m even less expert at judging baritones than I am at judging countertenors, but he had a richness and fluidity of tone that sounded wonderful. He seemed to manage very well with the tricky early Baroque coloratura in Orfeo’s elaborate showpiece aria Possente spirto. That aria also worked well because, in counterpoint to the complexity of the singing, the staging was so simple, with Orfeo, Charon and his henchmen slowly circling one another. The audience seemed to be completely rapt.
And, if we weren’t already captivated by Orendt, the finale offered a final display of his skill: this time his sheer courage. Hoisted up towards the heavenly salvation promised by his father Apollo, Orfeo catches sight of Euridice reaching for him below. Orendt wrestled in his ropes with what seemed to be scant regard for his own safety, twisting and stretching in a desperate effort to reach his beloved’s hand, and in the final dramatic moment slipped entirely out of the upper rope to effect a daring drop down – the entire audience seemed to catch their breath at once – and the final agony was that, still, their straining fingers fell too short of one another. A gorgeous ending, which summed up the despair of the whole and brought a final lump to the throat. (Orendt received not only frenzied applause but also a fair amount of energetic foot-stamping…)
When I booked I hadn’t been aware that Orfeo would be in English, but it actually didn’t bother me overmuch in the end. There were points when the syllables in words and music didn’t quite seem to match up, but I thought that Don Paterson’s translation did a fine job of making it understandable without being colloquial. There was still a strong poetic emphasis to it. The one element of the whole show that didn’t quite work for me – and I feel bad, because it sounds like I’m being a snob and I’m really not – is some of the choreography added by the young dancers assembled from community workshops. Much of their work was impressive, especially the writhing bodies in the Acheron (I’ve spent entirely too much of my life looking at Gustave Dore’s engravings for Dante’s Inferno, so appreciated these a great deal). But there were times when the choreography was a bit intrusive – even slightly amateurish – which undermined the professionalism and power of the whole. For me.
Just one thing before I finish: one interesting choice in this production was to transform Apollo into a bishop and Orfeo’s shepherd friends into priests. Initially I dismissed this as a bit of a gimmick, but it swiftly began to fascinate me. I’d never really stopped before to think about the Christ-parallels in the story of Orpheus, but this production made it very clear: the opening image based on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with Euridice cradling Orfeo’s lifeless body; his descent into Hell and return; his final salvation by his divine father; his assumption into heaven; and the comment (after Orfeo’s loss of Euridice) that the only one who could triumph in hell would be one who is able to triumph over his own human weakness. Much food for thought there.
Overall, a surprisingly powerful production with breathtaking emotional clout. Deeper-voiced chaps don’t get much of a look-in on my playlist, but I will be keeping my eyes open for Orendt in the future, and I’m sure he’s going to go far. For those of you who haven’t had the chance to see this live, the ROH and Roundhouse decided with great foresight to film a performance, which is available on YouTube for about the next six months. Do take the chance to have a look: I’ve no idea whether the impact will be as strong without actually being there, but it’s a fine example of how productions can be done extremely simply without losing any of their force and eloquence. (For another review of the show, the night before I went, head over to Dehggial‘s blog and take a look. Like Dehggial, I was quite a fan of Prosperina’s dress, but sadly I don’t think I’d be able to carry it off nearly as well as Kelly did…)