Orfeo, Royal Opera, Roundhouse, January 2015Posted on 14 January 2015
In Spring last year at the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre the Royal Opera put on Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, one of the earliest operas ever performed in a public opera house (the San Cassiano in Venice). This year they have reached further back to 1607, a time before public opera houses existed, performing Monteverdi’s Orfeo at Camden Town’s Roundhouse.
The contrast is very striking. L’Ormindo was given a beautiful production in the style of the time, directed by Kasper Holten. Orfeo on the other hand was produced by theatre director Michael Boyd, who has not previously worked in opera. The result predictably preferred stage action to music, the most egregious instance being towards the end of the first part when a gymnast wrapped in a green streamer writhed around during the lamentation for the loss of Orfeo.
This opera, first performed in 1607 at the court of Mantua where Monteverdi was director of secular music, made a huge impact with the learned audience. Here however the many musical numbers — ritornellos and sinfonias — were opportunities for directorial malfeasance, and during the first half it began to look like a school play invaded by brilliant singers and musicians, while the numerous gymnasts jumped around and formed stage props, walls, arches and the like. In the second half the physical jinks seemed less intrusive, and one nice directorial feature towards the end occurred when Euridice was laid on Orfeo’s knees in the same way the body of Orfeo had been laid on the knees of Music in the prologue. This is before the final apotheosis where Gyula Orendt as Orfeo performs remarkable gymnastic feats while suspended mid-air on his ascension to the realm of the gods.
It was beyond what is required of even the fittest singer, but the main triumph was in the music, played by the Orchestra of Early Opera directed by Christopher Moulds (replacing Christopher Curnyn at relatively short notice). The gripping visible and vocal presence of Gyula Orendt as Orfeo, who showed lovely vocal embellishments, really carried the show, as did Mary Bevan, superb in her triple roles of Music, Euridice and Echo, her sweet, pure tone making a particularly lovely start to the Prologue. Susan Bickley was a Messenger of enormous vocal beauty, though why her costume was long jacket, dress and matching shoes, like the mother of the bride, I don’t know. Excellent bass roles with James Platt showing a fine rounded tone as Charon, and Callum Thorpe as a resonant Pluto, plus fine singing from pastori Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague and Christopher Lowrey, plus Rachel Kelly as Pluto’s wife Proserpina and Susanna Hurrell as a nymph.
Monteverdi, who later moved to Venice and was the teacher of Cavalli, was a musician of genius, so this is not to be missed, even though the production sometimes gets in the way of the music.
Performances continue until January 24 — for details click here.