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01 Nov 2015

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

Now the ROH have returned to the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe — the scene of Kaspar Holten’s wonderful production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo in spring 2014, which was the first of the house’s collaborations with Christian Curnyn and the English Opera Company — to present director Keith Warner’s new production of Luigi Rossi’s Orpheus.

First staged at the Palais Royal in Paris on 2 March 1647, Rossi’s Orpheus was substantially longer than its operatic precursors by Peri and Monteverdi; the first performance lasted 6 hours, and cost between 300,000 and 500,000 écus to produce. It featured stage machinery designed by Giacomo Torelli, and 200 hundred carpenters were required to construct the scenery. The libretto, written by Francesco Buti, was also far more complex than previous operatic treatments of the myth. The 24 scenes were framed by a prologue and epilogue. Rossi and Buti delayed the marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice until the end of Act I, the death of Eurydice until the end of Act II, and the failed rescue of Eurydice from the underworld until the end of the Act 3, and around the central myth they interwove sub-plots involving a pantheon of Classical deities — Apollo, Venus, Cupid, Bacchus, Jove, Juno, Mercury, Pluto, Proserpina, Charon, Hymen, the three Graces, and the three Fates. These gods were accompanied by embodiments of Victory, Jealousy, Suspicion and Mockery, and in total Rossi required 18 singers to perform the 27 solo roles.

The circumstances of the opera’s origins help to explain such excess, centred as they were in the political machinations of Cardinal Mazarin, Prime Minister to, and the lover of, Queen Anne of Austria — the mother of Louis XIV, who was just 9-years-old at the time of the opera’s first performance. Mazarin’s ambition to import Italian culture into France resulted in the migration of many Italian artists to Paris, of whom Rossi and Buti were two such. Unfortunately, the opera’s excesses had a rather different effect than that intended: they intensified the aristocratic opposition to the power-hungry Mazarin who was attacked by the nobility in a wave of anti-Italian spirit which was greatly aggravated by the tremendous expense of Orpheus.

Keith Warner simplifies things somewhat. Along with some of the exuberant choruses and the more tangential conflicts between the immortals, the Prologue and Epilogue are omitted; thus the contemporary political context is diluted, for the former compares the young Louis XIV to the heroic — ‘And because you, with your eternal virtue, are destined to conquer the abysses, today, as an omen of this, Orpheus conquers Hell’ — while in the latter Orpheus’s lyre is presented as the Fleur-de-lis of indomitable France, as Mercury steps out of character and directly heralds the young King as the brilliant sun whose beams presage a new dawn and who is himself destined for immortality.

But despite the ‘tidying up’, Warner still offers a wealth of dramatic and scenic incident. Details of Torelli’s staging can be gleaned from a pamphlet which was issued at the time of the first performance: we learn that the Palais Royal was equipped with the system of changeable scenery which Torelli had perfected in Venice, allowing the numerous scene changes to be effected with astonishing swiftness. A contemporary observer reported, for example, that the transition to the palaces of Act 2 Scene 1 from the pastoral groves of Act 1 so ‘surprised and delighted the audience … that they wondered whether they had not themselves changed place’. [1]

The Sam Wanamaker Theatre may not facilitate the reconstruction of Torelli’s original Elysian Fields, Pluto’s Kingdom and ‘Palace of the Sun’ but the beautiful, historically ‘authentic’ interior translates us figuratively to former times, and Warner makes the most of all its theatrical potential. We spin speedily between scenes, and exits and entrances are deftly executed: none more so that when Venus assumes her disguise as the ancient crone, Alkippe, with the two characters appearing, disappearing and morphing with magical slight-of-hand.

We have descents from the heavens, risings through the trap-doors, secret hideaways beneath table-tops; figures burst through wedding-cakes, the disembodied heads of the Three Graces appear beneath silver plate-domes. Props are simple: three tables and some benches suffice, re-arranged to form a wedding-banqueting table as well as the marble slab upon which Eurydice expires, and ingeniously manoeuvred in Act 3 to become the ‘stepping-stones’ upon which Orpheus and Eurydice tread on their exit from Hades to almost-safety.

The work of the ROH and Globe Theatre costume, wig and make-up departments dazzles. Indeed, the attention to detail in all aspects is impressive and thoughtful. The opening scene is playful: the soon-to-be-weds feed each other chocolates and play draughts. In Act 2, the fatal red viper — a comic cobra, hidden under a salver, which sways and lurches as if coaxed by a snake-charmer’s mantra until clamped down by Aristeus — is foreshadowed by the red ribbons which adorn the Fates’ pantaloons; and then echoed by the cat’s cradle hangman’s rope which is threaded across the theatre, anchored by the auditorium’s columns, and which will lower Orpheus to the netherworld in Act 3.

What is most striking about Warner’s direction is his ability to move from broad farce to utterly sincere emotion in the twinkling of an eye. Orpheus is a tragicommedia per musica. It was first performed during the Carnival season at a time when Mazarin was anxious to portray France under the reign of the regent Anne as a country of consummate joy and good fortune: hence, Rossi and Buti strive for a mood of celebration, inserting into almost every scene a character — such as the Satyr or Momus — whose function is to provide comic relief. The result is that the ancient myth undergoes a drastic change of tone: pathos and bathos are juxtaposed — as when Aristeus’s profession that his sole desire is for Venus to learn of his broken heart is undercut by the Satyr’s quip that his sole desire is to die of laughter at Aristeus’s idiocy. Such lurches between sincerity and superficiality might be jarring but Warner does manage to suggest emotionally satisfying connections between the different registers. And, Christopher Cowell’s translation, while perhaps leaning a little too far towards the earthy and impertinent at times, is frank and entertainingly profane.

Like the best Restoration tragedy, Warner’s production is both aware of its own theatrical hyperbole and utterly confident in the veracity of the emotions portrayed. Thus, the Graces despair luxuriantly when Orpheus’s creative fecundity abandons him, but elsewhere show true fellow-feeling for his distress. And, Aristeus’s ludicrous attempts to revive the waning Eurydice with CPR transmute instantaneously to Eurydice’s most delicate death-bed appeals to her beloved Orpheus, as astonishingly preposterous hysteria is replaced in a flash by anguish of undoubtedly authenticity and depth.

The entire cast gives of their utmost and the musical results are superb. Mary Bevan was to have taken the role of Orpheus but illness intervened and at the first two performances, Bevan acted the part while Siobhan Stagg sang the role from the gallery. For the subsequent four performances (including that reviewed her), Stagg is to perform the role entire. (Bevan is due to return for the final six performances from 4 November.) The Australian soprano, who has been making a name for herself in Germany since she joined the Deutsche Oper Berlin as a Young Artist in 2013, is being offered — and is making the most of — her chances of late, having been call at short notice by conductor Christian Thielemann to sing Brahms’s Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in January of this year. Here, Stagg showed why her star is in the ascendant, combining a ravishing tone with pinpoint accuracy. Her vibrant soprano combined wonderfully with Louise Alder’s richly coloured Eurydice: Alder showed both excellent breath control and musical intelligence in crafting the rolling vocal phrases, recognising the nuances that the small chromatic inflections can bring about, enriching the lines as they evolved. The contrast between the diminishing pianissimo vulnerability and the rhetoric outbursts in fear of death that marked Eurudice’s dying moments was incredibly touching.

Graeme Broadbent’s Satyr — irreverent and cynical, a master of the derisive witticism (he berates the lamenting Aristeus, ‘You’re too humble, meek and far too weepy’) — was superb; he demonstrated how to use both the text and vocal colour to entertain and intrigue. Later as Pluto, Broadbent’s accurate bass tones rumbled with regal profundity. As Venus, Sky Ingram was feisty and sexy; her anger with her ‘ungrateful son’, the duplicitous Cupid — (sung with attractive vivaciousness and urgent feeling by Keri Fuge) — who thwarts his mother’s schemes by aiding Orpheus was blunt but utterly credible: Venus yells ‘Come here, you little bastard!’ as the winged Cupid flees to the gallery. Ingram managed to convey Venus’s genuine sadness as well as her indignant haughtiness and roguish self-confidence, moderating the colour of her soprano even within extended vocal phrases, as when she warns Orpheus that he is ‘Set for disaster’.

The Three Graces blended alluringly, Lauren Fagan’s Thalia floating thrillingly above Emily Edmonds sensuous mezzo (Aglaea), with Jennifer Davis’s Euphrosyne forming the middle layer of the delicious vocal sandwich. In their Act 1 trio, the Graces’ elaborate extensions of the initially syllabic vocal phrases were mesmerizingly beautiful, while their Act 2 ensemble was characterised by heart-breaking suspensions and dissonances which sinuously unravelled into focused solo utterances, accompanied by the sparsest of accompaniment textures. Mark Milhofer demonstrated comic acuity as both Momus, mocker of high-flown grandiloquence and affection, and as Alkippe, Venus-in-disguise.

Caitlin Hulcup was similarly outstanding as Aristeus. So often Aristeus is the butt of Buti’s humour, particularly in Act III, where grief and loss induce insanity and Aristeus confuses Momus with the nurse and the Satyr with Eurydice: for Monteverdi such as scene would have had tragic grandeur but Rossi and Buti play it for laughs. However, Warner and Hulcup balance waggishness with genuine affliction. Thus, in Act 1, having been out-romanced by Orpheus, Aristeus longs for death and is obliged by Cupid and the Fates who provide first a bow and arrow, then a noose, next a dagger and finally a poisoned chalice, while Venus lies on the banqueting trellis looking bored. In contrast, Aristeus’s ‘mad scene’ had real tragic power.

The intonation and ensemble were flawless, even when the singers were dispersed around the auditorium; as in the Act 2 final, where black-shrouded, candle-bearing figures sing from the aisles of the lower gallery, mourning Eurydice’s death. Because of the small dimensions of the venue, even though the acoustics are not particularly helpful, the singers don’t have to work too hard in the recitatives, and the result is an engaging naturalism. Christian Curnyn adopted judiciously precipitate tempi, and the recitative accompaniments were springy and light. The instrumental ensemble is small, but the string playing was warm and full; which made the restrained plaintiveness of the instrumental episode which follows the Act 2 mourning chorus all the more affecting — it was as if the string lines expressed the squeezing of every drop of pain from the hearts of the grievers, concluding with Orpheus’s open-mouthed, silent despair.

The ending of the opera evidences Rossi’s and Buti’s need to reconcile the Baroque lieto fine with the tragic conclusion of the ancient myth; moreover, having established a parallel between Louis XIV and Orpheus in the Prologue, they could not risk concluding with Orpheus’s failure and death! Thus, after Eurydice’s demise Pluto announces that she is not be pitied as she will now dwell eternally with the blessed in the Elysian Fields. Bacchus, angered by the loss of Aristeus, orders the retributive murder of Orpheus: but the latter is unalarmed as he has resolved to join his beloved in the Underworld. The final chorus, which proclaims that the mortal lovers have found bliss in heaven, was indeed an idyllic conclusion to Warner’s outstanding production.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Orpheus: Siobhan Stagg, Eurydice: Louise Alder, Aristeus: Caitlin Hulcup, Endymion/Charon: Philip Smith, Venus: Sky Ingram, Cupid: Keri Fuge, Satyr/Pluto: Graeme Broadbent, Monus/Alkippe/Jove: Mark Milhofer, Aegea: Verena Gunz, Talia/Hymen/Clotho: Lauren Fagan, Euphrosyne/Lachesis: Jennifer Davis, Aglaea/Atropos/Bacchus: Emily Edmonds; Conductor: Christian Curnyn, Director: Keith Warner, Designer: Nicky Shaw, Choreographer: Karl Alfred Schreiner; Orchestra of the Early Opera Company. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, Friday 30th October 2015.

[1] See Colin Visser (May 1983), ‘The Descent of Orpheus at the Cockpit, Drury Lane’, Theatre Survey, 24/1-2: 35-53.

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