There were a lot of reasons for opera fans to venture beyond the bounds of Zone 1 this week in order to experience a ground-breaking collaboration between the Roundhouse and the Royal Opera House in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. To me, the most important aspect of this co-production was the hope that it marks the beginning of several collaborations between the ROH and a handful of thriving early opera companies which the UK now boasts.

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To date, opera written earlier than 1790 has rarely appeared on stage at the ROH, the notable exception being Steffani’s Niobe which offered a unique opportunity to a touring band. Despite the importance of Italian Baroque opera as the precursor of bel canto, 18th century opera is not a regular part of the Royal Opera House schedule because it doesn’t make economic sense to give their contract orchestra a night off while importing an authentic instrument band. So some bright spark in management decided to echo ENO’s exploration of the Young Vic as a second venue. A Royal Opera House production has been taken out into the sticks (or should that be Styx?) enabling the Early Opera Company Orchestra to showcase its considerable talent beneath the banner of our premier opera company.

Contrary to popular belief, the Roundhouse is not just a pop music venue. Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was the place where new classical music under the baton of Pierre Boulez was performed. I last went there to hear the London Contemporary Orchestra perform Stockhausen – a typical 20th century Modernist piece in which the composer turned the whole space with the use of electronics into his sound world. In the Roundhouse, it was down to Director, Michael Boyd with the assistance of designer, Tom Piper (he of the river of poppies at the Tower of London) to transform the Roundhouse variously into the court at Mantua, where Vincenzo di Gonzaga (patron of Monteverdi) witnesses Orfeo’s wedding followed by his descent into Hades.

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What Mr Boyd and Mr Piper created was an extraordinarily intimate performance space, enabling the audience to feel engaged with and almost party to the intense drama being played out among us. Instead of gods and demi-gods such as Orfeo being portrayed as far removed from human experience, Boyd’s Orfeo possesses the magic of a quintessentially human musician, blessed with the skills to charm birds from trees but, sadly for him, not with the divine power to reverse the inevitability of Death. It was Vincenzo I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, a noble patron who recognised Monteverdi’s exceptional creativity and who commissioned what today we consider to be the first great “opera” – the new art form of a drama in which the actors actually sing rather than declaim the words – who presides over his great court at the opening in Mr Boyd’s rendition; the same Duke and his consort embody Pluto and Proserpina to whom the Underworld is in thrall, spending their time observing the mere mortals play out the action from their lofty dais with a wry smile of amusement.

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Another hugely significant aspect of this production was the decision to perform it in English. In principle it worked wonderfully well, as the translation was created by Don Paterson, himself a poet of some repute. There were no anachronisms nor any unintended double entendre. Should early opera be performed in the original or the local language? This is a debate which has been rumbling on since the 18th century. It’s a difficult judgement call to make in relation to Monteverdian monody as, in comparison with the speed and intensity of Italian, English is such a phlegmatic language. In view of the clarity and effectiveness of this particular translation, it seemed an odd non-sequitur to cast a Transylvanian singer in the leading role for whom English is possibly a third or even fourth language. At first, words such as “kingdem” and “Tartaress” (Tartarus) grated, but Gyula Orendt is such a fine actor, it wouldn’t have mattered if he had been singing in Hungarian; I would have still enjoyed his performance.

I do think that the choice of English gave the impression that the first two acts were navigated at a rather slow speed. Because of the indisposition of Christian Curnyn, the founder and driving artistic force behind the Early Opera Company, the modest band was conducted from the keyboards by Christopher Moulds. There wasn’t a lot of room for a band behind the circular stage with its extensive ramp. Personally I was a little disappointed not to have a powerful Italian string sound emanating from the band, although the varied Renaissance “brass” section were more than a match for the space. But we were not listening to acoustic sound travelling upwards to the cavernous ceiling of the old railway turntable; the band, the dais and a number of the soloists (if not all) were amplified, albeit subtly, by Sound Intermedia. Personally I would rather hear this music performed acoustically with the band in front of the singers, as the Academy of Ancient Music did in the Barbican. However there are reasons why Mr Boyd’s conception of the opera would not have worked performed this way.

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This was a production employing amateur dancers, a chorus of students from The Guildhall and some really young soloists, holding their own quite ably alongside such seasoned professionals of the first order as Susan Bickley. (Having said that, I’d love to know if Ms Bickley was amplified or not. I got the distinct impression she had no need of any artificial assistance to fill the space with her splendid fiery mezzo tone.) The dancers, chosen by audition from East London Dance who are signatories to the Royal Opera House’s Learning and Participation scheme, were handpicked from a series of workshops which took the themes of Orfeo into schools. The dancing was engaging, very well executed and enhanced my experience of the opera, the only limiting factor being the noise of fourteen young people leaping over each other’s heads or drumming heels on the ground in a form of Bacchic mania. That was probably sufficient justification for the younger principals and renaissance violin players to be amplified. Kudos to Lina Johansson who is credited as “circus director.” This is the second time in almost as many months that I have been impressed by the inclusion of “street dance” in an opera production.

The members of the Vocal Department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama who formed the chorus should be proud of themselves, as their contribution to the proceedings was entirely professional. They all committed not just vocally, but also to the movement direction of Liz Ranken. Of the younger principals, I was particularly impressed by the wonderful true bass of James Platt as Charon. I hope to hear more of his glorious liquorice tones before too long. He, along with Rachel Kelly who sang Proserpina, is currently on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Ms Kelly and her consort, Callum Thorpe brought a real sexual frisson to proceedings as well as a suitably imperious deportment. I also found Susanna Hurrell’s sparkling and engaging turn as a Nymph one of highlights of Act 1.

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In this production Apollo and fellow immortals became a hierarchy of three priests. The two tenors, Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague impressed me greatly with some wonderful duets, reminding me of Philip Langridge’s foray into the world of Monteverdi some thirty years ago. The third member of the trio, the countertenor, Christopher Lowrey also made a valuable and characterful contribution to proceedings.

Mary Bevan as Euridice sang with an elegance and sweetness of tone and somehow held the audience’s attention long after she stopped singing with her compelling stage presence. Her consort was not as powerful a presence vocally as John Mark Ainsley was to the delightful Sophie Bevan (in the AAM production,) but Mr Orendt is a baritone as well as a softer, more vulnerable presence on stage. His physical work as an actor was profoundly moving, transcending the minor irritation of the paper streamers on which he slipped at least twice and the ramp to Hades down which he started to slide rather annoyingly.

The vision of this production was extremely effective; however, its execution proved a little more challenging

3 stars

Miranda Jackson

(Photos : Stephen Cumminskey, via the ROH website)

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