Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo: Royal Opera at the Roundhouse

Michael Boyd’s Orfeo is a bold mix of formality and rough circus

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Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo: Royal Opera at the Roundhouse
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Michael Boyd’s new production of Orfeo ends as Orfeo (baritone Gyula Orendt), suspended above the Roundhouse stage in a harness, lunges down to Euridice (soprano Mary Bevan) and nearly falls, failing to touch her imploring hand. It’s a heart-stopping image: the unbridgeable gap between life and death, between the exceptional and the everyman, between love’s fantasy and its reality.

This was a moment where Boyd’s blend of severe formality and rough circus took flight. At others, the rough-and-tumble antics of the youthful East London Dance jarred against a rather inert cast. Dramatic symmetries were stylishly realised: the playful tug-of-war after the wedding, in which Euridice gradually moves up a ramp through the audience is mirrored and reversed in Hades, when Orfeo loses her. There was some enlivening choreography for the dancers as living props, and their roiling bodies made an effective River Styx. But when Orfeo realises his new wife Euridice is dead, the writhings of a prone dancer tangled in streamers felt faintly ridiculous.

The Roundhouse, arranged like a Greek amphiteatre, proved both monumental and intimate for this Royal Opera youth project, if in need of minor amplification. Tom Piper’s minimal design, with Jean Kalman’s precision lighting, plunged us into opera as ancient theatre. As a Mantuan courtier of Monteverdi’s time remarked ‘all the performers speak musically’, and in Don Paterson’s lucid new translation of Ovid’s myth every word communicated.

But Boyd’s is an overwhelmingly sombre vision: the happy couple inhabit a prison ruled over by a glamorous Pluto (bass Callum Thorpe) and Prosperpina (mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly), surrounded by sinister clerics. While it makes intellectual sense that Death is in ultimate charge, dramatically it leaves our protagonists with nowhere to go.

The Act 1 wedding is cruelly brief, so it needs to burn bright. It’s hard to believe in the gay abandon of a party where guests arrive in manacles and boiler suits. When tragedy strikes (most poignantly announced and shaped by mezzo Susan Bickley as Silvia), instead of a shock of sorrow, we felt a familiar gloom descend. Other opportunities for playfulness were missed: Kelly’s was an ardent Prosperina, but where was her coquetry?

Vital light and shade came from the musicians of the Early Opera Company: quicksilver violins, crackling cornets, lutes weaving gold gossamer webs around the voices. Here was the enchanting combination of humour, spontaneity, passion and refinement sometimes lacking on stage.

Engaging Hungarian baritone Gyula Orendt played Orfeo as a sort of hapless Tom Rakewell, but he lacks the glitter, the tenorial radiance, required: after all, Orfeo is supposedly a musician of superhuman powers.  Mary Bevan delivered Euridice with delicate poise, while bass James Platt was an impressive Charon. Other promising singers making their ROH debuts included Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague and Christopher Lowrey as the pastors, and the Guildhall School of Music provided a gleaming chorus.

While one missed the inimitable dynamism of conductor Christian Curnyn (who had to withdraw from this production) Christopher Moulds kept the fire stoked. If the Roundhouse venue has attracted opera novices to this, the first great opera, it’s surely an experience they won’t forget.

 

Orfeo is on at London's Roundhouse from 20-24 January. Visit: roh.org.uk

Listen again on BBC Radio 3 on 2 March

 

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

 

 

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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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