United Kingdom Rossi, Orfeo: Soloists, Orchestra of the Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn (conductor). Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 23.10.2015 (MB)
Rossi, Orfeo (sung in English, as Orpheus)
Orfeo – Mary Bevan/Siobhan Stagg
Euridice – Louise Alder
Aristeo – Caitlin Hulcup
Endimione/Caronte – Philip Smith
Venere – Sky Ingram
Amore – Keri Fuge
Satyr/Pluto – Graeme Broadbent
Giove/Aikippe/Momo – Mark Milhofer
Aegea – Verena Gunz
Talia/Himeneo/Clotho – Lauren Fagan
Euphrosyne/Lachesis – Jennifer Davis
Aeglea/Atropos/Bacco – Emily Edmonds
Keith Warner (director)
Nicky Shaw (designs)
Karl Alfred Schreiner (choreography)
Romain Rolland crops up in all manner of musical situations. His appearance here is owed to his discovery in 1888, in Rome, of the music for Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo. It would subsequently feature in his doctoral thesis, ‘Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne. Histoire de l’opéra avant Lully et Scarlatti.’ – as well it should. Thank goodness he did, for this opera, long regarded as ‘historically important’, is also – the two do not always go together – a very attractive, interesting work for modern audiences. It is ‘historically important’ both musicologically – the first opera written for Paris, with all that entails – and more politically, as part of Cardinal Mazarin’s Italianisation of the French court, on the eve of the Frondes. Moreover, in its musical quality and variety too it questions some of what remain the more commonly held teleologies of musical history, which is all to the good.
None of those matters is especially evident in Keith Warner’s production, which concentrates not upon the meta-theatrical but upon the immediate theatricalities of presenting an entertaining and often surprising three hours in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from Francesco Buti’s challengingly wide-ranging libretto. There will always be losses – at least in a work worth performing – in such an enterprise, but I suspect most of us can live, especially in a production not really concerned with such matters, with the loss of the Prologue and Epilogue. So out go the large-scale – twenty-four French solider – choruses of military victory, Mercury’s promise of immortality to the young Louis XIV, the god’s post hoc explanation that Orpheus’s lyre represents the fleur-de-lys, and so on.
What we have is a non-pedantic, non-fetishistic period-ish look – not unreasonable, given the location – which concentrates upon creation of character, interaction of characters, and a good deal, perhaps too much, of unsuspected comedy. Christopher Cowell’s excellent English translation – if we must have one, it should be good – perhaps errs on the ‘humorous’ side too, but that is more a matter of taste than anything else. Warner and Cowell, along with Nicky Shaw’s sumptuous costume designs and, of course, the hard, often overlooked work of the costume makers from the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe, bring alive a version and view of the work that may be partial – what is not? – but which, by the same token, and in far smaller surroundings than the Palais Royal gives a sense of its multi-faceted nature.
I have it on good authority that the Playhouse acoustic is a nightmare for singers. One would not have known, given committed performances from all concerned. Mary Bevan’s indisposition left her acting the title role with Siobhan Stagg singing from the gallery (with the orchestra). The ‘compromise’ did not come across as such at all, at least to my eyes and ears; it offered musico-theatrical commitment of a very high order and introduced – to me, at least – a soprano of considerable musical gifts, showing clarity and warmth to be anything but antithetical. The same could be said of Louise Alder’s Euridice, here allotted a larger role than one often encounters, not least because of the business involving Aristeus’s love for her and Venus’s attempts to further that forlorn prospect. Alder is, I hear, a Rosenkavalier Sophie, and, on the basis of this, is likely to prove more interesting in the part than many ‘whiter’ exponents. Caitlin Hulcup’s portrayal of Aristeus showed an artist apparently born for trouser roles (although doubtless not just for them), with a winning, convincing line in melancholy vulnerability. There was, crucially in an opera with so many duets and ensembles, a true sense of theatrical company from all concerned, with sensible doublings – and more – adopted. Standing out from the rest of the cast for me were Sky Ingram’s sexy, self-aware Venus, Keri Fuge’s lively, mischievous Cupid, Graeme Broadbent’s earthy Satyr, and Mark Milhofer’s comedic, Cavalli-esque turn as Alkippe (Venus as crone).
The acoustic also seemed to favour the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company, warmer and far less variable in intonation than it had been for the Royal Opera’s Monteverdi Orfeo at the Roundhouse. Players and conductor Christian Curnyn seemed in their element, the continuo group rich and varied, and the strings sounding lighter of foot and considerably less parsimonious of expression than one generally hears with ‘period groups’. Curnyn’s tempi seemed both sensible and dramatically quickening (perhaps in more than one sense). The orchestra was very small: not remotely on the scale of the French court’s Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, but then the performing space was not the Palais Royal either. The authenticke lobby makes it up as it goes along, of course. There is nothing especially wrong with that, except if the claim of ‘authenticity’ be made, overtly or covertly. However, imagine the outcry from the period ayatollahs if a modern-instrument performance were so flagrantly to disregard antiquarian circumstances. There would certainly be calls to send a latter-day Raymond Leppard to The Hague (‘crimes evincing a semblance of humanity’ perhaps). Except there would not, since the chances of our being permitted to hear such a performance are – well: choose your own absurdist simile.
This was, all in all, an excellent evening, yet I could not help but wonder what delights a larger-scale, arguably more ‘authentic’ performance and production – sets of parks, gardens, caves, Hades made quite an impression in 1647 – might have brought on the Royal Opera’s main stage itself. (Not that I resented the opportunity to spend an evening in this beautifully reimagined playhouse.) Perhaps it could be pwerformed with a newly-commissioned reorchestration; Berio would once have been the man for it and there are many composers who would surely relish the opportunity. Such dreams aside, however, three cheers to the Royal Opera for expanding its repertoire in such a stimulating direction.