Tom Morris’s life-affirming Vienna L’Orfeo is as immersive an experience as is possible in an opera house

AustriaAustria Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: Soloists, Dancers, Concentus Musicus Wien / Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Ella Gallieni) from the Vienna State Opera, 18.6.2022. (JPr)

Vienna State Opera’s L’Orfeo © Michael Pöhn

Production – Tom Morris
Sets and Costumes – Anna Fleischle
Lighting design – James Farncombe
Video – Nina Dunn
Choreography and Movement direction – Jane Gibson, Callum Hastie
Dramaturgy – Nikolaus Stenitzer
Chorus director – Martin Schebesta

The Music / The Hope / Echo – Kate Lindsey
Orfeo – Georg Nigl
Euridice – Slávka Zámečníková
The Messenger / Proserpina – Christina Bock
Plutone – Andrea Mastroni
Caronte – Wolfgang Bankl
Apollo – Hiroshi Amako
Nymph – Antigoni Chalkia
A Shepherd – Iurii Iushkevich
A Shepherd / A Spirit – Narumi Hashioka, Aaron McInnis

John Dew who directed I puritani (review click here) was born in Cuba but is regarded as British and now Tom Morris, from a younger generation, stages L’Orfeo: he is also a British theatre director and currently in artistic charge of Bristol Old Vic. It is interesting how I puritani has had only the one production in the history of Vienna State Opera and this L’Orfeo is actually the first time it has ever been put on at the Haus am Ring in the 415 years since Monteverdi wrote it. His ‘favola in musica’ (story in music) is far from my natural territory and if I have possibly seen I puritani once before Vienna, I have never seen and heard L’Orfeo before. Bridging the Renaissance and the Baroque it is widely regarded as the earliest opera – as we understand it in the West today – still being performed. There is a large cast of diverse mythological and allegorical characters which include Greek gods, nymphs, shepherds and infernal spirits, and the music uses a relatively large orchestra and there is a fanfare, arias, duets, trios, choruses, dances, and instrumental interludes.

Those more informed than I will know of the research that has gone into transforming the little we have been left with about L’Orfeo from Monteverdi’s time into the edition of the score we heard in Vienna from baroque ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien attempting, as I guess it does, to replicate the performance conventions of the composer’s day. Alessandro Striggio’s libretto is based on the very familiar Greek legend of Orpheus and after celebrating his wedding to Euridice, she dies from a snakebite when out gathering flowers and Orfeo (Orpheus) descends to Hades (the underworld) and attempts to bring her back to the land of the living. He is warned by Plutone (Pluto), king of Hades, that while Euridice will be following him, Orfeo must not look back at her otherwise she will be lost to him forever. He does of course and is inconsolable until his father Apollo helps him come to terms with loss and ascend with him to heaven where he will recognise Euridice’s likeness in the sun and in the stars.

Monteverdi became maestro della musica (master of music) at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and L’Orfeo was written for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. Each of its acts deals with a single element of the story and each one ends with a chorus and the music is remarkably expressive and characterful for its time. The five acts do not make it a long evening and yet intriguingly there is an interval shortly after the start of the third act just after Hope has guided Orfeo to the gates of Hades and had the warning ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ pointed out to him. Why intriguingly? Well it is because Morris reprises the passages at the start of the second half. If the role of Orfeo wasn’t demanding enough he is made to repeat himself.

What Tom Morris and his collaborators achieve looks to be one of the most life-affirming opera productions I have ever seen and I wish I had been there in Vienna watching it. An invitation was writ large on the screen Willkommen zur Hochzeit von Orfeo und Eurydice and the audience taking their seats are greeted by the ‘wedding guests’ who are happily joining in with all the selfies being taken. Eventually there is a drum roll and the conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, strolls through the audience before he conjures up the fanfare in honour of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. Morris is keen on as immersive an experience for L’Orfeo that is possible in an opera house and characters also move up and down from the pit, so audience, orchestra and stage is as united as it can be in the unfolding story.

We are at a Beltane-inspired wedding ceremony where Orfeo and Euridice participate in a fiery handfasting. Anna Fleischle provides both sets and costumes: there is a riot of colourful stylish costumes and eclectic pagan headgear and we seem to be a woodland glade with stylised trees and wicker figures. Nina Dunn’s video to the rear of the stage is used sensitively to add atmosphere and initially appears to reflect the interior of the Vienna State Opera. The choreography and movement from Jane Gibson and Callum Hastie involves a lot of joyful gambolling with interesting touches of sensuality. After Euridice’s sudden death, the stage rises to reveal the underworld with a wasteland background and the roots of the tress hanging down from above. The ferryman Caronte – who refuses to take Orfeo across the River Styx until the sound of Orfeo’s lyre (which we never see) sends him to sleep – has a blue schooner on his head! ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ is scrawled across the stage as the characters inhabiting Hades are mostly those we have seen before, if a little more menacing and they writhe and contort rather than gambol.

Kate Lindsay (The Music) © Michael Pöhn

Kate Lindsey is a vision in white as the ‘spirit of music’ who sings the prologue in a fascinating mix of German and English, though this is not continued during the opera which is sung in the original Italian. Lindsay will be seen accompanying Orfeo on his quest as she also sings as Hope and Echo. She is the true star of this strongly cast L’Orfeo with her exquisite phrasing, excellent use of ornamentation, and most refined pianissimi. Also catching the ear were Slávka Zámečníková who moves gracefully as an appealing Euridice, Christina Bock impressed as both The Messenger and Proserpina and Nymph (Antigoni Chalkia), Pluto (Andrea Mastroni) and Apollo (Hiroshi Amako) supplied compelling vignettes. For me, Wolfgang Bankl as Caronte lacked the necessary bass notes. And last but not least, Georg Nigl was mightily impressive as Orfeo, his singing was tireless and he brought to his character’s searing laments a fierce dramatic commitment and an assured technique. He did however, on occasions, look a little self-conscious with some of the moves Morris asked from him.

The chorus and dancers entered into all the shenanigans with great energy and conviction and Heras-Casado achieved some wonderful sounds from the virtuosic musicians of Concentus Musicus Wien. Even when Orfeo – in the best way – sings on, and on, and on, there were no longueurs and it was paced perfectly, Heras-Casado was also keenly aware of all the emotional shifts in the opera and while the continuo instruments were to the fore, the singers were never overwhelmed.

Jim Pritchard

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