Orfeo, BBC Proms, Prom 25, August 2015


Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a triumph of harmony, both musically and in the Classical lines of its dramatic construction. This Proms performance too was a triumph, sidelining the artless production put on by the Royal Opera at the Roundhouse in January.

First composed in 1607 for the Gonzaga court at Mantua where Monteverdi was director of secular music, it is the earliest opera regularly performed today, predating by thirty years the first public opera house, founded in Venice. Very early opera performances were for court guests including chosen cognoscenti, and this was a huge success, delighting the senses of the relatively scholarly audience. To make a success of it today you need fine musicians, singers, and chorus, along perhaps with a little movement, but without directorial trickery.

This was exactly what the Proms gave us, with a simple staging that served to enhance the elegant music and plot. Rather than a concert performance with a seated choir that stands to sing, here the chorus played a more dynamic role entering and exiting in a manner appropriate to the feeling of the music, with the women’s bright dresses changed to black when they represent spirits in Acts 3 and 4. Congratulations to the wonderful Monteverdi Choir, founded by John Eliot Gardiner, who allowed himself to be surrounded by joyously dancing female choristers as the final act drew to a close.

In the meantime the staging gave us numerous theatrical moments. Eurydice and the Nymph danced with tambourines to express bucolic happiness in Act 1, but when the Messenger bringing news of Eurydice’s death appeared in Act 2 it was at the rear of the proms arena accompanied by a chittarrone player. After slowly making their way to stage where the Messenger bids leave to take up a sad and lonely life, the chorus members sit, one by one, in grief. An affecting moment, and so too was the voice of Echo in Act 5 sounding from the high gallery opposite the stage.

The Albert Hall provides opportunities for fine staging, and opera performances here can sometimes be more satisfying than in opera houses where the audience is partly at the mercy of self-indulgent opera directors. More opera at the Proms please!

Wonderful music direction by John Eliot Gardiner and a superbly nuanced Orpheus showing wonderful stamina and restraint by Polish tenor Kristian Adam. Bass singing with excellent low notes by Gianluca Buratto whose appearance as Charon (later Pluto) brought sudden depth to this opera, and very fine singing from Andrew Tortise as First Shepherd and Apollo, and Nicholas Mulroy as First Spirit. Lovely purity of tone from Francesca Aspromonte as Music and Messenger, with a delightful portrayal of Eurydice and Hope by Mariana Flores, and gentle charm from Francesca Boncompagni as Prosperina. Solo performances from the chorus came over well, notably Esther Brazil as a charming Nymph, and Gareth Treseder in multiple roles.

Yet in the end it was the well-nuanced dramatic sense of John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting, avoiding excess melancholy, that made such a rewarding evening. Wonderful.

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