Admirable Singing but Incoherent Staging in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: Soloists, Vocal Ensemble from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Dancers from East London Dance, Orchestra of Early Opera Company, Christopher Moulds (conductor). Roundhouse, London, 13.1.2015 (MB)

Orfeo – Gyula Orendt
Euridice – Mary Bevan
Silvia (Messenger) – Susan Bickley
First Pastor – Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo) – Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor – Christopher Lowrey
Charon – James Platt
Pluto – Callum Thorpe
Proserpina – Rachel Kelly
Nymph – Susanna Hurrell

Michael Boyd (director)
Tom Piper (designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Liz Ranken (movement)
Lina Johansson (circus director)

I am all in favour of our London opera companies moving outside of their West End homes – perhaps preferably a little further afield than Camden, but even that change of scenery can act as a liberating agent. For that, the Royal Opera is fully deserving of praise, and it certainly feels ‘different’ taking the Tube to Chalk Farm and arriving at the Round House, venue for a good number of Pierre Boulez’s BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, given when he similarly wished to break free of some of the stultifying conventions of bourgeois concert life and to seek new, more receptive audiences. It is a lovely touch to have children from local schools compose and perform fanfares – audibly related to Monteverdi’s celebrated opening Toccata – in the bar beforehand. As with Boulez’s innovation, one cannot but praise the broadening of repertoire too, Monteverdi, one of the very greatest of all opera composers, being conspicuous only by his absence from Covent Garden’s endeavours.

However, in this case, it is not entirely clear what remains of the Royal Opera, beyond its name as an umbrella organisation and presumably some degree of financial support. To bring in a ‘period’ orchestra at the same time as relocating gave the impression of Monteverdi being compartmentalised, surrendered to those whom Boulez so aptly summed up as ‘specialists in nullity’; moreover, what does it say about the worth the company attributes to its own, very fine orchestra, perfectly capable of performing repertoire from Monteverdi to Birtwistle? The world is full of ‘period’ performances of ‘early music’; is it really too much to ask that someone somewhere might actually show the courage to stand up to ‘authenticke’ fatwas and use rich, modern forces? Or perhaps, even, to use one of the several ‘reimagined’ versions of Monteverdi’s score for our own or other times? Berio’s would perhaps have been the most obvious in this case, but there are many others; indeed, the task would have made a wonderful commission for an imaginative young (or old) composer.

The situation seems odder still in the light of a staging that is certainly not attempting some form of historical recreation. Nothing wrong with that, at all, of course; indeed, the idea is as silly onstage as in the pit – or here, onstage again, given that there was no pit. The post-modernism, in the worst sense, of mainstream ‘authenticity’, however is shown up for what it was, given the incoherence of approach. As Boulez once again put it with respect to the kindred movement of twentieth-century neo-Classicism, ‘People gather up all manner of bits and pieces and say, “O.K., I’ll put a Corinthian column on a metal base and it will look post-modern.” Obviously, this is all quite superficial.’

Alas, a greater problem with Michael Boyd’s staging lies in its incoherence even on its own terms. Rarely have I been so unclear as to what an opera staging was seeking to achieve. A host of theatrical clichés listlessly compete to amount to considerably less than the sum of their parts. We have a play within a play, vaguely nodding both to the work’s courtly origins (a royal couple, later revealed to be Pluto and Proserpina, seated above, under a crest) and some sort of modern-ish fascism-lite (hints of a prison, which soon vanish, security forces (?) all in black, and so on). The ‘look’ comes across as a mixture of student production and 1990s RSC, whilst the addition – I hesitate to say ‘incorporation’ – of dancers, a laudable community initiative in itself, is less than fully integrated, giving the impression of a school talent show. The choreography itself is embarrassing enough to make one think of David McVicar’s West End-musical assault on The Trojans. Piling more art forms upon each other – a ‘circus director’ is credited, though I am not quite sure for what – seems a grave misunderstanding of the Gesamtkunstwerk, itself a concept unduly emphasised by those who have most likely never read Wagner in the first place. Above all, given the overall incoherence, there is little sense of who these people actually are, let alone, most crucially, of how they relate to one another. Had I not known the opera, I suspect I should have found myself utterly at a loss, instead of only partly so.

Related to that is the most baffling aspect of all: what seems to be a Christianising concept, signalled not only by the transformation of shepherds into robed priests with crucifixes (‘pastors’, a play on words or at least upon origins only likely to register, let alone to be appreciated, for those with a cast list and who have checked it) and the strange English translation furnished by Don Paterson. Orfeo – why not ‘Orpheus’, if we are in English? – is presented in Christ-like imagery to start with, prefiguring his death; but it is far from clear that death is in itself a Christian concept, and little is done to explain why or even how we should plausibly consider the action in this sense. The final act in particular now takes upon itself an oddly Christian, or perhaps better, anti-Christian tinge, with words such as ‘grace’ in context accorded unsettlingly prominent emphasis. Quite apart from the question of why the work is being performed in translation – there are surtitles, which should surely be enough – the appearance of concepts such as ‘grace’ sit as awkwardly as the Christian elements in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Orfeo is not Parsifal, nor did it become so on this occasion. Given the choice, I should unhesitatingly stick with Alessandro Striggio – not, I hasten to add, on account of a nasty bout of Werktreue, but because transformations, should they be attempted, need to be considerably more coherent than these. I am not sure what the cuts are supposed to achieve, either; Orfeo is certainly not a lengthy work.

There was, however, much to admire in the singing; indeed, it was as a showcase for (mostly) younger voices that this performance really found its raison d’être. The undoubted star of the show – something would have gone wrong, had this been otherwise! – was Gyula Orendt, as Orfeo. A member of the Berlin State Opera, the Hungarian-Romanian baritone offered as powerfully-acted a performance on stage as I have seen for a long time. His facial expressions: tearful, hopeful, joyous, and, towards the close, benumbed, drew one in to his character as happens all too rarely on the operatic stage. (That may, of course, be partly a matter of the relative intimacy of the venue, at least for those of us fortunate enough to have been in the Stalls.) Although his vocal performance was not entirely flawless – he was not the only cast member to experience occasional difficulty with the hemiolas – to say more would be to nit-pick in the face of so committedly dramatic a performance. Mary Bevan offered a lovely Euridice, words and music as one – insofar as they could be in translation. Susan Bickley made the most of the Messenger’s pivotal appearances: one saw as well as heard the import of her news. Callum Thorpe and Rachel Kelly were equally impressive as the ‘royal’ (?) couple, Pluto and Proserpina. My only regret was that they did not have more to sing, but their acting was to be enjoyed more or less throughout. All members of the cast, though, impressed. Their ensemble, together with the splendid postgraduate singers from the Guildhall, offered a true instance of what opera should be: more, rather than less, than the sum of its part. (Mostly) subtle amplification dealt pretty well with the problematical acoustics, although certain oddities were unavoidable in a non-static staging.

Christopher Moulds might, however, have presented a more bracing account. Rhythms too often were on the soggy side; Ivor Bolton, in Munich last summer, had offered much more in the way of dance and, indeed, more general dramatic contrast. (He also had the benefit of an excellent production, one which it would be well worth the Royal Opera, ENO, or someone else considering bringing to London.) The continuo group proved far more impressive than the rest of the orchestra, its brass and, less but still too frequently, its strings sometimes excruciatingly out of tune. I can scarcely imagine the reaction, were such flawed playing to be served up by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; quite why audiences and critics are willing to put up with this in the name of ‘period performance’ remains an utter mystery to me. But then, so does the ideology as a whole; whatever it might be, it is certainly not ‘historically informed’.


Mark Berry

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