What a week to stage an opera about art’s power to challenge institutional authority, oppression — even death itself. Orfeo’s weapon might be a lyre rather than a pen, but the metaphor is silhouetted clearly against the monochrome backdrop of the Royal Opera’s new production of Monteverdi’s opera.
Director Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the RSC, has taken a world of nymphs and shepherds and stripped it for conceptual parts. A battle between Gods and men is reinvented as a struggle between individual creative autonomy and faceless obedience to church and state. In Tom Piper’s designs, meadows and bucolic loveliness are out and 24-style metal walkways and gantries are in. The shepherds go from ‘pastori’ to pastors (see what they did there?), while the nymphs and infernal courtiers become business-suited henchmen and women serving glamorous dictator Pluto and his wife sitting high above the stage, all the better to watch the human suffering below.
Thematically it works well enough (though I’m not convinced we gain much in the updating), but visually it’s all a little predictable. If the ‘blessed springtime’ of earth is indistinguishable from the caverns of the underworld then what is Orfeo fighting so hard to regain? This is not only the first time that an opera has been staged at the Roundhouse and the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with the Royal Opera, but also Boyd’s first foray into opera and — unaccountably — the company’s first-ever staging of the work. There is everything to play with and for, and yet there’s a lack of energy, of invention, that saps emotion from a strong cast.
For all its acoustic difficulties, the potential of the space is enormous. Underused here, the opportunities for action on multiple levels, endless entry and exit points, and its giant circular stage promise much for the future. There’s always talk of the ‘intimacy’ of Orfeo, premièred not in a theatre but at the Mantuan court of the Gonzagas, but the work is one of scope, embracing the entire cosmos in a musical vision of heaven and hell that originally demanded more than 40 instruments. Boyd responds to this with a troupe of young dancers and acrobats from East London Dance, who bustle around and among the action — now ripples on the river Styx, now Thracian prisoners — transforming a chamber drama into something altogether more substantial.
At least, that’s the intention. In practice, though their tumbling is impressive, the dancers are a muddle. Their movement distracts eyes already lacking the frame of a proscenium, and the thumping and thudding of the choreography all but obscures the music. Why, for example, when the pastors’ duet of lament at the death of Euridice speaks clearly of stillness, is there so much thrashing and convulsing happening centre-stage? At least ‘Possente Spirto’ — Orfeo’s great musical manifesto — is left alone, trusting Gyula Orendt’s stricken face and keening ornaments to carry the scene.
Orendt is the only non-native English speaker in the cast, leaving him rather exposed in Don Paterson’s tidily translated libretto. His linguistic command comes and goes, but there’s an unworked emotional core to his delivery that anchors the performance and those around him. Mary Bevan makes a tender Euridice, but musically the strongest support comes from the trio of pastors (Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague and Christopher Lowrey), who make the most of some of Monteverdi’s finest vocal writing, and James Platt’s powerfully characterised Charon. A chorus drawn from Guildhall’s vocal students feels underpowered, and both they and the excellent instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company’s orchestra (directed from the keyboard by Christopher Moulds) could benefit from greater numbers, balancing the aural elements to match the visual dominance of the dancers.
Under artistic director Kasper Holten the Royal Opera is changing. Last year saw the company’s first field trip to the Globe’s Wanamaker Theatre for Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, and now this new Roundhouse partnership takes it out of its velvet-lined Covent Garden cocoon and into the community. It’s not just about new repertoire (though that’s a bonus in these smaller venues), it’s also about a new perspective, a new creative geography for opera and opera-goers. The trouble is that — from its unprecedented English translation to its contemporary setting, its combination of amateur and professional performers and its visual vocabulary — this Orfeo shouts that agenda so loudly that Monteverdi’s music struggles to be heard underneath.
If Orfeo teaches us anything it’s that music can work miracles — miracles that come bound in conditions and red tape, but miracles nonetheless. Music can take you to the underworld and back again, from earth to the heavens; it shouldn’t have a problem with the journey from Covent Garden to Camden.
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