L’Orfeo is one of the three great Monteverdi operas being toured 450 years after the composer’s birth, in semi-staged concert productions developed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with a group of outstanding singers and the wonderful Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. L’Orfeo follows very well received performances at Colston Hall in Bristol of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, reviewed on Plays to See by Owen Davies. L’Orfeo in fact was the first of the three to be written, performed at the court in Mantua in 1607, and the earliest opera that is regularly performed today.
This is almost the first (but far from the last) opera to be based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The opening scenes portray the joy accompanying the marriage of the semi-divine musician Orpheus to the nymph Eurydice, followed by his descent to Hades to bring her back after her sudden death, his success in obtaining Pluto’s assent to her return and the ultimate failure of the endeavour when a mixture of love and fear leads him to look back at Eurydice, breaking the condition for her release laid down by Pluto. A final scene has him invited by Apollo to join him in the heavens where he will recognise his love’s likeness in the stars. The style of the music can be described as late Renaissance/early Baroque but it is very much all Monteverdi, bringing together in a unique and original way a range of forms and approaches to convey beautifully and very directly in music the events and emotions of the drama.
John Eliot Gardiner and the stage director Elsa Rooke take advantage of the space on stage and the stepped choir stalls behind and the numerous entrance points to give a large amount of free movement for the singers and chorus. Dressed in simple costumes, with small identifying touches for particular roles, they move behind, between and around the conductor and the relatively small orchestra. This opera requires a substantial brass group of period cornetti and sackbut players, who stand on the front tier of the choir stalls both for the opening toccata and for the brass that forms part of the musical environment of the underworld. They are deservedly applauded at the end. The harp – played by the outstanding Gwyneth Wentink – features prominently, musically and visually, as a proxy for Orpheus’ lyre.
The chorus have a large part to play, especially in the celebrations of Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s love, and then the shock following her reported death, in acts 1 and 2. The Monteverdi Choir are superb – exuberant in celebration, expressive in grief but always clear and lovely in tone.
All the singers are very good but the outstanding performance comes, as it should do in this opera, from the tenor Krystian Adam in the title role. He unfailingly conveys the full range of emotions, from triumphant ecstasy to deepest despair, with beauty, strength and delicacy. Lucile Richardot is lovely singing the tragic role of Messenger bringing news of Eurydice’s death by snakebite, and then resigning herself to solitude. Hana Blažíková is an affecting Musica in the prologue and then establishes a distinct character as Eurydice. Gianluca Buratto sings the role of Charon with an appropriate touch of surliness, and Pluto with an authoritative but warm bass, while Francesca Boncompagni sings a sympathetic Prosperina, Pluto’s wife. The duets of the two shepherds, Francisco Fernández-Rueda and Gareth Treseder were very nice.
This two-hour opera is performed without an interval and held the capacity audience, including me, enthralled throughout. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists clearly have a shared and deep understanding of, and enthusiasm for, what they are about, whether they are dancing and beating drums in celebration, or pressing through the sombreness of the underworld, or losing themselves in grief. The music is beautifully played and the production is imbued with an intensity that is completely absorbing, so that a piece of art that first took shape more than four centuries ago becomes natural, accessible and deeply moving today.