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Gyula Orendt as Orfeo and Mary Bevan as Euridice [Photo by Stephen Cummiskey]
16 Jan 2015

Orfeo at the Roundhouse, Royal Opera

The regal trumpets and sackbuts sound their bold herald and, followed by admiring eyes, the powers of state and church begin their dignified procession along a sloping walkway to assume their lofty positions upon the central dais.

Orfeo at the Roundhouse, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gyula Orendt as Orfeo and Mary Bevan as Euridice

Photos by Stephen Cummiskey


Just as things were at the first performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo on 24 February 1607, in the exquisite apartments of the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua; except that we are at the Roundhouse in Camden, ducal regalia has been replaced by slick business suits and clerical attire, and those sitting in judgement upon the unfortunate pre-nuptial couple, Orfeo and Euridice, are not the Gods and Spirits of classical antiquity but black-cloaked representatives of modern civic and ecclesiastical institutions.

The ‘first opera’, the first time opera has been staged at the Roundhouse, an experienced theatre director’s first essay into opera, and the Royal Opera House’s first production of Orfeo: this quartet of inaugurations made for an auspicious occasion, with added interest offered by the involvement of a chorus comprising students from the Vocal Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and dancing ‘nymphs and shepherds’ drawn from East London Dance. And, indeed, there was much to appreciate and enjoy at this opening night of director Michael Boyd’s production of Monteverdi’s favola in musica: but, there was also a sense that perhaps the opportunities afforded by the distinctive qualities of the venue and the rich variety of the personnel had not been grasped with quite the innovative spirit shown by Monteverdi himself four hundred years ago.


There’s certainly nothing wrong with the up-dating; the mythological heroes of early opera certainly served the rhetoric of propaganda expounded by the courtly centres of Europe, and director Michael Boyd’s concept of the conflict between individual creativity and self-expression (Euridice and Orfeo are clothed in white, albeit increasingly besmirched and charred as the opera progresses) and a Hadean, oppressive state that quells imaginative freedom is surely topical. Dressed in grey prisoners’ jumpsuits, the nymphs and shepherds are initially manacled, their fetters released so that they may celebrate the forthcoming matrimony as ordered by a Pastor (who has dropped his bucolic ‘al’); Pluto and Proserpina are chic oligarchs, Charon has an entourage of ‘heavies’.

And, Boyd tells his story simply and clearly, while Tom Piper’s designs are straightforward and minimal - the bare, circular stage is adorned with nothing more than fluttering emerald crêpe streamers to evoke Elysium. Disappointingly prosaic perhaps, but maybe there was concern that the in-the-round acoustic might be less than helpful or flattering (as it is, modest amplification is employed), and that complexities of staging would further hinder the singers’ projection and communication?

The libretto is full of references to both singing and dancing - this was, after all, the first time that a drama had been entirely sung by its protagonists and Monteverdi and his librettist, Alessandro Striggio, were perhaps anxious to persuade a potentially sceptical audience that what they were watching was entirely credible. Thus, movement plays a big part in Boyd’s production, and the madrigals, canzoni and balletti, with their tripping, dance-like rhythms are neatly choreographed. But, other than the set-piece dances, the production is frequently under-directed: so, in place of inherent dramatic movement which explicates the relationships between the protagonists and complements the musical narrative, we have superimposed movement - contemporary dance and circus acrobatics. Certainly, the young dancers of East London Dance are talented and often wonderfully expressive: their swirling evocation of the River Styx is entrancing, and the graceful cartwheels and ebullient somersaults with which they rejoice the imminent wedding delightfully embody the freshness and joy of a pastoral paradise. But elsewhere their physical exuberance seems at odds with the musical discourse and can be distracting, both visually and aurally. For example, the dancer’s presentation of Orfeo’s grief at the news of Euridice’s death certainly suggests a tortured soul writhing in anguish, but it also overpowers the vocal expression and diverts our attention from the essence of the opera: that is, the power of musical rhetoric.

PR8A7545 ORFEO - LOWREY AS THIRD PASTOR ORENDT AS ORFEO, BEVAN AS EURIDICE, GREGORY AS FIRST PASTOR (C) ROH-ROUNDHOUSE. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.pngChristopher Lowrey as Third Pastor, Gyula Orendt as Orfeo, Mary Bevan as Euridice and Anthony Gregory as First Pastor

Boyd does conjure some striking visual images. In the Prologue, La Musica (Mary Bevan, who also sings the role of Euridice) is unshackled and as she begins her strophic introduction to Orfeo’s tale, the tragic protagonist (Gyula Orendt) is carried in, borne aloft like a victim of crucifixion, so that she might clasp him in her arms - thereby foreshadowing the close of the opera, when the sorrowful Orfeo cradles his ‘lost’ beloved. Similarly, the lovers’ reluctance to part so that Euridice may prepare for the wedding is suggested by the chain of hands which stretches from Orfeo at the centre of the stage along the raised entrance platform: the outstretched arms prefigure the final dramatic image of Orfeo’s futile grasping for his beloved’s lifeless hand as he is raised heavenwards.

On the whole, and fittingly, in the absence of anything more than rudimentary stage action, it is the singers who must communicate the drama, and the cast are uniformly excellent. Mary Bevan sings with control and purity, suggesting the innate grace and goodness of Euridice, while Susan Bickley as her friend Silvia (Monteverdi’s Messenger) imbues this minor role with intensity and character. Callum Thorpe’s even bass-baritone conveys Pluto’s cool self-assurance and he is ably partnered by mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly’s gleaming Prosperpina. As Charon, James Platt uses his strong bass-baritone to suggest Charon’s menacing obduracy. Tenors Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague blend beautifully with Christopher Lowrey’s warm, appealing countertenor, and all three Pastors communicate the drama powerfully.

As the only non-native speaker in the cast, Hungarian baritone Orendt isn’t always successful in his enunciation of Don Paterson’s new translation which tells the story plainly, without fussy conceits and with some effective and unobtrusive use of rhyme. But, Orendt’s commitment to the role is absolute and unceasing, and he sings with ardour and directness - even when hovering upside down from a harness, demonstrating a physical litheness and strength to equal his vocal flexibility. The arioso of ‘Possente Spirto’, the spiritual centre of the opera, gradually increased in persuasive fervour and demonstrated the considerable extent of Orendt’s vocal and musical resources; it was a pity, therefore, that his lyre - embodied by the two obbligato violins whose decorations embrace Orfeo’s appeals - was not given more prominence, for the violins’ elaborate ornamentations surely encapsulate La Musica’s opening assertion that she can charm mortal hearing and thus inspire human souls to attain the sonorous harmony of heavenly concord.

The nine postgraduate singers from the Guildhall vocal department acquit themselves well as the chorus but they and the musicians of the Early Opera Company - who play superbly under the direction of Christopher Moulds - feel a little removed from the drama, nested as they are at the rear of the large circular stage.

Boyd has relied on his dancers to recreate the excitement and anticipation which must have been experienced by the members of the Accademia degli Invaghiti in February 1607, but in so doing he somewhat neglects the musico-dramatic core of the opera. The final image of the anguished Orfeo, suspended between heaven and earth, is striking and moving. But the human and spiritual love which is embodied in Monteverdi’s score has been overshadowed by the visual and the physical. One might wish that Boyd had more consistently conjured the spirit of La Musica’s opening words: ‘I am Music, who with sweet melody know how to calm every troubled heart, and now with noble anger, now with love can inflame the most frozen minds.’

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Orfeo - Gyula Orendt, Euridice/La Musica - Mary Bevan; Silvia (Messenger) - Susan Bickley, First Pastor - Anthony Gregory, Seconda Pastor/Apollo - Alexander Sprague, Third Pastor/Hope - Christopher Lowrey, Charon - James Platt, Pluto - Callum Thorpe, Proserpina - Rachel Kelly, Nymph - Susanna Hurrell; Director - Michael Boyd, Conductor - Christopher Moulds, Set Designer - Tom Piper, Lighting Designer - Jean Kalman, Sound designer - Sound Intermedia, Movement Director - Liz Ranken, Circus Director - Lina Johansson, Orchestra of the Early Opera Company, Vocal Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, East London Dance. Royal Opera House, Roundhouse Camden, Tuesday 13th January 2015.

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