Orpheus: Luigi Rossi (1647)

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★★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in collaboration with the Royal Opera, 8 November 2015)

Hot on the heels of Ormindo comes another partnership between the Globe and Covent Garden, which offers another treat of early Baroque opera in the unique ambiance of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This time it’s Orpheus, directed from the gallery by Christian Curnyn with a select force of musicians from Early Opera.

Orpheus was the first opera commissioned for the French court, ordered by Anne of Austria under the influence of Cardinal Mazarin, and performed in 1647 before the nine-year-old Louis XIV with an all-star cast. The primo uomo was Atto Melani, who had a sideline as a diplomat and sometime spy for Mazarin. The secondo uomo Aristeus was sung by Marc’ Antonio Pasqualini, one of Rome’s most celebrated castrati, and also a composer. Six years earlier Pasqualini had been painted by Andrea Sacchi in a rather odd portrait: he stands off-centre, wearing a fur mantle and casually picking out a tune on his clavicytherium, while the foreground of the picture has been hijacked by a monumental nude Apollo who presents him with a laurel crown.

Rossi’s version of Orpheus is much more complex and considerably more fun than the familiar renditions of the myth that we get from Monteverdi or Gluck. Here our leading couple don’t even get married until the end of Act 1 and the snake incident takes place at the end of Act 2, with only a single act left to cover the whole underworld business. The librettist Francesco Buti pads out the narrative with additional characters who help to keep the pace tearing along: thwarted lovers, squabbling gods and sidekicks. What’s impressive is that the opera veers between low comedy and high pathos without ever losing its balance and, even more impressively, the production pulls off the same feat.

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Cupid (Keri Fuge) and Orpheus (Mary Bevan) © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Musically there are still hints of Monteverdi but the structure is noticeably different. Arias are beginning to sneak in here and there, although Buti and Rossi seem slightly uncomfortable with the idea of one character holding the stage for so long. Although recitative is sung, we know that within the world of the opera the characters regard this as speech; an aria, though, seems to need special pleading and, even ‘inside’ Rossi’s opera, appears as music. In each case we’re given particular circumstances which make it plausible that someone would suddenly burst into song: a character sings to pass the time, or we see an actual performance (like Orpheus before Pluto), or someone goes mad and so the rules of reason no longer apply.

It’s interesting to see this, because in Cavalli’s Xerse, written seven years later, there’s no longer an attempt to explain why characters are singing: there the arias are taken for granted. I wonder why that should be. Was Cavalli more confident? Did Rossi feel that a measure of explanation was necessary for the French court, who were less familiar with this sort of thing? A puzzle.

As our lovers wait impatiently for their wedding, everyone around them shares their joy. Well, almost everyone. Everyone except Aristeus, who’s hopelessly in love with Eurydice and has issues about letting things go. Rather than face up to the fact he’s never going to have her, he’s decided to mope around for the rest of his life like a personification of Melancholy from a Jacobean painting, trailing misery in his wake. In the original, I presume Aristeus was a straight tragic role, but here he flings himself around in such overblown despair that he becomes a figure of fun. I suppose the joke is twofold: first, Aristeus insists on acting as if he’s in a melodramatic tragedy, whereas in fact his scenes usually have a robustly comic element; and secondly, the poor fellow thinks he’s the leading man and can’t quite grasp that the opera isn’t about him.

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Aristeus (Caitlin Hulcup) © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Nevertheless, Aristeus came very close to stealing the show for me. That was entirely down to Caitlin Hulcup, who not only made a very good man with body language and posture down pat, but also threw herself into plenty of slapstick without ever letting Aristeus’ fragile dignity slip. And her voice… I hoped I was going to like her live, because I’ve heard her on recordings as Arbaces in Arne’s Artaxerxes and Cesare in Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica, and to my great pleasure she lived up to all my expectations: fortunately, thanks to the original casting, Aristeus has some very good music. Despite being a bit of a spineless wet blanket, he always manages to remain sympathetic, down to his sorrowful mad scene at the end.

So, Orpheus has won his Eurydice. Fortunately Mary Bevan has now recovered from her throat infection so she was no longer miming (her opening lines sounded ever so slightly raspy but when she warmed up that vanished). It’s rather ironic that I should now see her as Orpheus, of course, because she was Eurydice earlier this year in the Roundhouse production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Rossi makes us wait until Act 3 to really hear Orpheus in action, and Bevan made a lovely job of his plaintive performance to Pluto; but her finest moments were the duets with Louise Alder’s Eurydice, in which their two voices blended together to wonderful effect – especially in the duet as they wind their way up through the underworld towards the light of day. That whole section was done extremely well, with Bevan really fighting not to look at her Eurydice, while the moment of the fateful glance is so sudden that it catches you out even if you’re expecting it. Wonderfully, in all the versions of this story I’ve seen, people in the audience gasp when Orpheus looks back.

Alder herself, golden-voiced and glowing, benefitted from Buti’s strong writing of her role: Eurydice usually has little to do except get stung and get ‘rescued’, but Buti gives her a slightly high-handed resilience as she constantly asserts her love for her poet husband. One gets the sense that Eurydice is Orpheus’ muse: with her, his voice can rise to dizzying heights of beauty, but when he loses her he’s rendered literally speechless. One of the most powerful moments of the opera, strangely enough, was the conclusion of Act 2. Eurydice lies dead on her bier; black-draped figures bearing candles stand around in the Playhouse, singing a funerary dirge. Orpheus staggers in, almost physically unable to look at her. When he does look, his face contorts into a scream of agonised grief as he crumples to the floor; but it’s a silent scream. Our poet, our musician par excellence, finds that in the depths of despair his voice deserts him. It’s a striking inversion of what you’d expect.

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Orpheus (Mary Bevan) mourns Eurydice (Louise Alder) © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Some other thoughts: Rossi really makes good use of ensembles. All three acts are rounded off with choruses, with a particularly effective one at the end of Act 2 when the sombre mood was underlined by the singers performing a cappella, their candles flickering in their hands. The final chorus at the end of Act 3, however, seems to come a little too quickly: perhaps it’s the editing of the score (which was originally six hours long), but I didn’t really feel that loose ends were tied up. Certainly Jove has prevented Orpheus being ripped to pieces by Bacchus’s slavering maenads (which is always such a downer at the end of a show), but this doesn’t feel like a happy ending. It seems that Orpheus will only reclaim his Eurydice among the stars, and he doesn’t look remotely happy about the prospect.

Moving on, the translation was by Christopher Cowell, who also did Ormindo, and there’s a similar refreshing feel to this English libretto. The comic characters have throwaway phrases which sound so modern they could be ad-libbed (“Come here you little bastard!” snarls Alkippe to the disobedient Cupid, following it up with, “I’ll rip your sodding wings off!”). But I presume it was always thus – noble, high-minded characters have always spoken verse and the plebs, as happens here, speak robust and uncompromising prose. Personally I had no issues with the translation: I thought it was fun enough to keep everyone engaged without departing too far from the original spirit.

Costumes were, as usual, mouthwateringly gorgeous and designed with a strong flavour of 1647 about them. The men were in baggy breeches, loose shirts, fitted doublets and high-heeled shoes tied with ribbon, with the occasional periwig; the women in fitted bodices and skirts; the gods in classical-accented costumes. And, although the Sam Wanamaker doesn’t allow excessively flamboyant effects, there were trapdoors aplenty, and a clever use of a long red ‘thread’ during the scene where Orpheus consults the Fates. But when you have an energetic, talented cast and the magic of candlelight, you don’t need extravagant effects.

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Momus (Mark Milhofer) © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

I should add that Aristeus is the son of Bacchus. That’s an important plot point, because it’s not wise to upset a god who has hordes of wild women at his command. But it also means that, as Aristeus mopes around Arcadia, he’s accompanied by the Satyr (Graeme Broadbent), who occupies the traditional comic servant role, but comes across as an unwilling minder rather than a friend. Admittedly I didn’t originally realise he was meant to be a Satyr: being of a sensitive disposition, I was distracted by the hair, braided beard, black leather doublet, thigh-high boots and whip, but I caught up at the first interval. Broadbent didn’t really get to sing at great length, even in his alter ego as Pluto, but I was very impressed by his handling of the Satyr’s wisecracking recitative and his perfect comic timing. It was an extremely strong performance. (I only realised afterwards that he was the old king Ariadenus in Ormindo.)

And, if Broadbent was looking after one end of the comedy, the other end was handled with equal brilliance by Mark Milhofer, who commanded the scene in each of his three roles. As Momus, the god of gossip, Milhofer tried to liven up Orpheus’s nuptial banquet while wearing a fabulous plumed hat; and as Jove, in the final scene, he strode on as the spitting image of Charles I, beard and all. But his greatest moment was as Alkippe, the old hag as whom Venus disguises herself. Personally I think it isn’t a proper early Baroque opera unless there’s a tenor got up in skirts as a comedy nurse or similar, and Milhofer was just superb as the old crone with a vamp inside fighting to get out. He was lucky enough to have a little aria and his voice was lovely: a strong light tenor, set off with real comic panache. And if I had to pick one final secondary character, it’d be Keri Fuge’s Cupid: a delightfully mischievous performance, full of charisma and boyish swagger, set off with a really gorgeous bright soprano that rang off the galleries. Watch out for her.

Naturally this is going to be compared to Ormindo and for me it didn’t quite have the same finesse and dramatic force as a production. It was sometimes too crowded, not just in the amount of action on the stage, but also in the cluttering of tables in Acts 1 and 2, which allowed for some clever effects but also took up a lot of room on a stage that really isn’t big. For all that, I did enjoy it very much and I found that it was helpful to remember why this was written in the first place: not as an opera in the 18th-century sense of that term that we use nowadays, but as an entertainment. And by God, it was entertaining, full of colour and spirit, and treading a very satisfying line between laughter and poignancy.

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Cupid (Keri Fuge) © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

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