United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2022  – Monteverdi, Orfeo: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus & The English Concert / Laurence Cummings (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 1.6.2022. (CR)
Director – John Caird
Choreographer – Arielle Smith
Designer – Robert Jones
Lighting Designer – Paul Bryant
Orfeo – Ed Lyon
Messenger – Diana Montague
La Musica – Claire Lees
Speranza – Laura Fleur
Euridice – Zoe Drummond
Caronte – Frazer Scott
Pluto – Ossian Huskinson
Proserpina – Lauren Joyanne Morris
Nymph – Anna Cavaliero
Shepherds and Spirits – Florian Panzieri, David Horton, Richard Pinkstone, Georgia Mae Bishop, Dafydd Jones, Philippe Durrant, Michael Bell & Joe Chalmers
Dancers – Amber Doyle, Maddy Brennan, Benjamin Derham, Annie Joy Edwards, Cameron Everitt & Emily Gunn
Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) is justly celebrated as the first important opera – he described it as a ‘favola in musica’, and contemporaries as a musical play, but its remarkable synthesis of existing vocal and instrumental forms into one seamless narrative represented a landmark in the history of music drama, however the work might be described. Although there are few details as to exactly how the work would have been first presented, John Caird’s new production for Garsington Opera makes a compelling attempt to recreate in modern conditions something of the potent theatrical and emotional impact which it seems to have had on its first audiences in a presumably fairly intimate setting in the Ducal Palace at Mantua, rather than in any formal, public space such as a theatre.
The stage in the auditorium is taken over by lush greenery, as though the surrounding grounds of the Wormsley Estate have encroached to become virtually a jungle, representing the Thracian countryside in which the opera is partly set. Ruined foundations and fragmentary Ionic capitals hint at devastation and disaster despite the ostensible idyll in view. The musicians of The English Concert are brought up on to the set, such that their performance forms part of the action alongside the singers, and they wear the same summer dress – making apparent the close integration of action, words and music in Monteverdi’s score that was the significant innovation of the new operatic genre, even as it evoked the ancient of Greek tragedy in its themes and settings. The audience is invited to become almost immersed in the action itself by similarly wearing white or cream dress so as to harmonise with the production; although, as the set is transformed for the second part into the darker hues of the Underworld’s Stygian swamp (the hanging green vegetation now more like sinister stalactites in the gloom) and the characters wear black, that perhaps comes to feel like more of a gimmick (or maybe an unintended Brechtian distancing effect) and so sporting a normal dinner jacket would hardly be out of place at that point after all.
The threshold to Hell is suggestively represented by a huge illuminated ring, through which of course Euridice fails to pass at the crucial juncture, owing to Orfeo’s failure to abide by the rules – without even the benefit of a whitewashing Sue Gray report in reprieve or the blind eye-turning of colleagues to mitigate his breach. It is a fitting touch, however, that in this drama about the power of music, it is music director Laurence Cummings who comes forwards to sing the part of Apollo at the end, extending mercy to Orfeo by inviting him to heaven to experience immortal joy. The integration of music and drama is made satisfyingly complete in this production by having the named characters generally emerging into and out of the wider cast on the stage, who are elegantly choreographed by Arielle Smith; and some of Orfeo’s songs are given in close dialogue with Joy Smith’s accompaniment on the harp, standing in for his famed lyre, and offering more ethereal instrumental support than, say, the theorbo would.
At the centre of this performance is Ed Lyon’s magnificent, charged account of Orfeo. Rather than singing with straightforward, lyrical ardour, he tends to captivate attention with his sedate but eloquent interpretation, with a telling sotto voce even in moments of joy, portending tragedy later on. However, he also projects outwards in impassioned fury or sorrow to underline particularly expressive lines of poetry, and as a result his monologues are compellingly structured little musical dramas in their own right, not merely extended passages of beautiful singing.
The other solo parts are notably briefer, but well characterised here nonetheless. After the beguiling introduction by Claire Lee as the personification of Music, Zoe Drummond is a more demurely voiced Euridice. Diana Montague sings the role of the Messenger with tonally warm concern as she delivers the tragic news of Euridice’s death, whilst in the Underworld, Orfeo encounters Laura Fleur’s demonstrative Hope, and then Frazer Scott as the blithely cool boatman Caronte (Charon). Ossian Huskinson evinces a similarly lithe authority as Pluto, with Lauren Joyanne Morris his assertive queen, Proserpina.
As Lyon achieves, so Cummings and The English Concert also skilfully render the light and shade of the score, implied by the poetic images of the libretto. The strings in particular often dance and shimmer with joy for the happier sections, but as they articulate the lament for Orfeo’s grief, they come to sound like a mellower Renaissance viol consort, as though performing a sorrowful pavane. Drums intermittently provide an added edge of urgency alongside the other sections of the continuo, ensuring that the performance is nimble throughout and not at all heavy handed or volatile, sensitively supporting the powerful directness of Monteverdi’s vocal writing.
At the end of the performance, in the crepuscular shades of the auditorium with the increasing darkness outside too, the singers give a limpid a cappella performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Che dar più vi poss’io’ from his more or less contemporary Fifth Book of Madrigals, whose text has a lover giving his heart to their beloved, making an apt parallel to Orfeo’s soliloquy on his lifelessness without his heart, Euridice. It provides one last, lacerating expression of the fleeting, precious vulnerability of human affairs and aspirations, which the foregoing opera has explored with such dramatic coherence and realised so effectively here.