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Monteverdi, Orfeo: English National Opera, 15.4.2006 (ME)


‘L’Orfeo’ was not the first opera, that honour belonging to Peri and Corsi’s Daphne of 1598, but it was Monteverdi’s first opera and certainly the first ‘great’ work in that genre. When it was premiered at the ducal palace in Mantua in 1607, the composer used a small cast of around nine or ten singers, ideal for such an intimate space and for the depiction of such deeply personal emotions as love and loss: the composer’s own wife, the court singer Claudia Cattaneo, died in the same year. Today Orfeo occupies a central place in the repertoire: ENO’s last new production was in 1981, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role – that was a fairly conventional affair, classically restrained in style, very different to this latest one by the modish Chinese-American Chen Shi-Zheng, in collaboration with the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston.


Monteverdi’s most remarkable legacy was surely his invention of the stile concitato, or ‘agitated style,’ a form of musical expression designed to give voice to extreme emotions which he perfected in the later Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and this version of Orfeo served more than anything else to remind us of how original that concept was: it was not so much the stage pictures as the sound world which Lawrence Cummings, the orchestra and singers had created, which made for a genuinely thrilling evening. The regular ENO orchestra joined forces with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and they were performing from an edition of the score based on facsimiles of 1609 and 1615: instruments used included historical copies, tremendous attention had been given to the detail of Monteverdi’s singing style, and, as the conductor says, this enabled ‘the intonation and sound world of the seventeenth century’ to be ‘absorbed as if by osmosis.’

It is not easy to transpose that which was created for a private space into something suitable for the vast cavern that is the Coliseum, but it is a tribute to Cummings and most of the singers that one was seldom conscious of the disparity. Such is the virtuosity required of the singer of the title part that few singers are up to it unless you are willing to pretend that a pared-down or otherwise adapted version of the role is acceptable: there is of course a lot of that about, but if what you are seeking is no-holds-barred virtuosity coupled with a willingness to throw himself into whatever the director has decreed – or, putting it bluntly, the ability to do idiotic things with the body whilst doing glorious ones with the voice – then John Mark Ainsley is your one stop shop. His voice is not large, being far more suited to a space such as a room in a ducal palace than a 1500 seat opera house, but then the role itself is not in the big bow-wow style.

I question the notions that Orpheus must be ‘sent up,’ that he is some sort of pop idol with a grievance, and that he should ascend to the skies in quite so mundane a manner (harnessed like an aid parcel of rice travelling in the opposite direction) but given all that, you could just shut your eyes and listen to some of the most agile, daring and expressive singing anyone could hope to hear. I have previously described the aria ‘Possente Spirito’ as the most taxing nine minutes of any singer’s life, but Ainsley makes it sound as natural as such complex music can be: when Caronte falls asleep you are persuaded, not that Orfeo has bored him into slumber but that he has fallen into a strategic doze so that the poet-singer can cross the river and achieve his desire. Ainsley is less convincing in his final scenes, perhaps because the production makes too much of his character’s egotism and self-dramatization, but elsewhere he is peerless, whether joyful in the ecstatic music of the first act or numbed by grief in ‘Tu se’ morta, se’ morta, mia vita.’

He is supported by a very fine, mostly young cast: Elizabeth Watts sang with crystalline clarity as Music, although the part of Hope lies a little low for her; Wendy Dawn Thompson was a wonderful Messenger, dignified in her sorrow and conveying every nuance of her doleful story – both these singers are ex students of the RCM and it is good to see them on the ENO stage, reminding us not only that the RCM continues to provide singers of outstanding talent, but also that our national opera company is fulfilling its role in terms of nurturing them. Tom Randle was a supportive ensemble member as well as a noble Apollo, if a times a little underpowered; Stephanie Marshall was a finely seductive Proserpina, Jeremy White an unctuous Pluto, and Brindley Sherratt a finely characterized Charon. Ruby Philogene seemed over-parted as Eurydice. There was much fine singing from the ensemble (more usually referred to as ‘shepherds’) with Tim Mead and Toby Stafford-Allen being especially noteworthy.


There was much to like about the production, although those who saw Trisha Brown’s version in Brussels might not find this one particularly original, since not only the basic set but the use of gesture, movement and dance were very similar. The lighting, by Scott Zielinski, is wonderful: subtle, exciting and wonderfully varied, his designs create worlds of murky darkness suggestive of mysterious other realms, or of glorious colour-filled spring and summer fields. Much of the stage design, too, is finely done, with Charon’s deathly ferryboat being especially evocative: the director revealed his own fascination with death and funerals in a recent interview, and this is very intimately shown not only in that scene but in the rituals surrounding Euridice.

Where I part company from this director is his use of so many dancers, and his apparent idea that the world of Western celebration must be suggested by – yet again – youths in T shirts swigging from bottles of Bolly: that sort of thing is so RSC circa 1989, and it does nothing to further the drama. The dancers are all graceful, beautiful and elegant, but they seem to be used as eye candy rather than integrated into the whole; my own taste in such things is to let the music speak for itself through the singers, rather than being given the impression that we are unable to sit and listen to singing – we must somehow have vibrant colours flashing before our eyes. I found the scene between Orfeo and Apollo to be lacking in dignity, although of course the singing compensated for much. As you might expect, I loathed the penny- plain, deeply unpoetic translation.

Orfeo has not lost its power to move us, and when it is sung and played like this, in a production which, however much I might question some elements, is redolent of deep love for, and commitment to the work, it cannot fail to remind us of the power of great music to change our perceptions. It was a joy to hear the quality of playing which Cummings obtained from the orchestra, especially from the lutes, recorders and trumpets, although what a shame it was that two ladies sitting near to me, and obviously connected to the production or the house in some way, so they should have known better, felt it necessary to continue their ‘mwah mwah’ socializing during the opening fanfare, as though it were a mere piece of background music. There was clearly a big ‘fan club’ presence for the director, to judge by the roars he received when he took his bow – significantly, he occupied the central position in the ‘line-up,’ whilst the singers – even Orfeo himself – took a modest side part. The ascendancy of the director being made manifest? I hope not, since this above all is an opera which depends upon the strength of its singing, and it is in that area which this version of it is most obviously successful.

Melanie Eskenazi


Pictures © Catherine Ashmore



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