‘Orfeo’ Takes Turn Toward The Bard At Royal Opera

Euridice (Mary Bevan) and Orfeo (Gyula Orendt) in happier times in Monteverdi's 'Orfeo' in London.  (Production photos by Stephen Cummiskey)
Euridice (Mary Bevan) and Orfeo (Gyula Orendt) in happier times in Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ in London.
(Production photos by Stephen Cummiskey)
By George Loomis

LONDON — The Metropolitan Opera and other major U.S. opera companies give only fleeting attention to the Baroque repertoire, arguing that their houses are too big or that these operas are just not what they are equipped to put on. An occasional performance of one of Handel’s larger-scaled operas, using modern instruments, is about as far as they go.

Orfeo (Orendt) begins his search for Euridice.
Orfeo (Orendt) begins his search for Euridice.

Leading opera companies on the other side of the Atlantic are not so quick to write off the first century and a half of opera’s existence. And whether, like the Zurich Opera House, they have their own established period-instrument orchestras, or, as with the Berlin Staatsoper and René Jacobs, they have an ongoing relationship with a period-instrument conductor, ways are found to do Baroque operas in stylistically informed, dramatically convincing productions.

A case in point is the Royal Opera House’s first-ever staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (seen Jan. 14), one of the very first operas written and regarded by many as the best among them. One fundamental decision presumably was made early: to stage this 17th-century work not in the company’s 2,256-seat house at Covent Garden but at the Roundhouse Theatre in the borough of Camden. This unique structure was built in the mid-19th century as a railroad roundhouse, complete with a turntable, but became a performing arts venue in the 1960s following years of disuse.

With some 1,700 seats, the Roundhouse is not exactly intimate, but as a classic example of, well, theater in the round, most spectators are seated reasonably close to the stage. (There was some discreet amplification of voices.) It’s a space that director Michael Boyd (a former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company), staging his first opera with Orfeo, presumably knows well: His acclaimed Histories Cycle transferred to the Roundhouse in 2008.Perhaps the power of suggestion played a part, but Shakespeare more than once came to mind in experiencing Boyd’s engrossing and deeply affecting production of Orfeo.

Sylvia (Susan Bickley) delivers the news of Euridice's death.
Sylvia (Susan Bickley) delivers the news of Euridice’s death.

Unlike Gluck’s version of the myth, in which Euridice is already dead as the action begins, Monteverdi’s opera depicts the wedding of the lovers — before the serpent’s fatal bite — and a frolicsome time it is. In Boyd’s staging, the nocturnal spirit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream pervades this bucolic scene (effectively but sparsely lit by Jean Kalman) as green streamers decorate the stage and a band of dancers from East London Dance perform handstands, cartwheels, and other acrobatic feats. In this festive ambiance, accompanied by nymphs and shepherds (“pastori” in Italian), Euridice promises her devotion to an overjoyed Orfeo, the musician who, in the words of Don Paterson’s excellent new English translation, “stilled the wild beasts with his immortal verses.”

Officiating are not shepherds but pastors in the religious sense, dressed in simple priestly garb (Tom Piper designed sets and costumes), an innovation that adds an appealing degree of formality to the proceedings. Likewise, Pluto and his wife, Proserpina, who participate in the drama only later, watch the action from the upper level of a simple two-tiered structure adjacent to the stage, like a royal couple observing courtly entertainment, which is exactly what Orfeo, first performed in Mantua in 1607, was. The orchestra is positioned below them. The décor is barebones simple.

The couple’s happiness, of course, is short-lived. A woman dressed in an off-white business suit, who looks out of place amid the revelers, turns out to be Silvia (the Messenger), who later descends from a long ramp stretching from the side of the auditorium to the stage while announcing Euridice’s untimely demise. Much of the second half of the opera (Acts 3, 4, and 5) can seem excessively gloomy as Orfeo navigates the Underworld to redeem, then lose, Euridice. The dancers, so lively before, sometimes appear as dead bodies to be walked around.

Orfeo (Orendt) on the ramp leading to and from the Underworld.
Orfeo (Orendt) on the ramp leading to and from the Underworld.

To avoid lethargy, Boyd relies on some potent theatrical gestures. The long ramp proves especially striking in facilitating the couple’s attempted exit from the Underworld, as Euridice increasingly lags behind Orfeo, who somehow senses the problem and turns to give the forbidden glance. As Orfeo laments his loss, Euridice’s body is brought in and placed in his arms.  And at the end, when Orfeo ascends to the heavens so as to gaze at Euridice in the stars, he is hoisted aloft by two ropes.  It is one of those moments that makes one fear for the safety of the singer, but it also makes for a moving close as he reaches down for Euridice’s hand, which she likewise stretches up to meet his.

Orfeo ascends to the heavens.
Orfeo ascends to the heavens in the London production .

The singers are an accomplished lot who sing flexibly and without excess vocal fat. Baritone Gyula Orendt conveyed the rhythmic bounce of Orfeo’s upbeat arias before projecting the character’s deep-seated despair. Soprano Mary Bevan brought firm tone and feminine delicacy to Euridice, and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley delivered Silvia’s grim news in assertive, iridescent tones. Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague, both tenors, and countertenor Christopher Lowrey were excellent as the Pastors. Mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, bass James Platt, and bass-baritone Callum Thorpe constituted the suitably austere Underworld trio of Proserpina, Charon and Pluto. Soprano Susanna Hurrell sang agreeably as the Nymph.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Christopher Moulds drew assured, incisive playing from the Orchestra of Early Opera Company. He showed a fine feeling for the dramatic pacing of the opera and the dovetailing of musical numbers. Paterson’s new translation, though hardly a requirement for a successful Baroque revival, reinforces the production’s dramatic cogency.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.