Ancient Opera Orfeo Feels As Fresh As Ever

By Sam Smith Last edited 37 months ago
Ancient Opera Orfeo Feels As Fresh As Ever ★★★★☆ 4

Gyula Orendt as Orfeo © Alastair Muir

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

The earliest composition to constitute an opera as we know it is Dafne, written by the Italian Jacopo Peri in 1597. The oldest for which a score survives is the same composer’s Euridice of 1600, but the most ancient to remain frequently performed today is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607. Written for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua, and based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, it tells of his descent to Hades and unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride Euridice back to the living world.

This L’Orfeo, or rather Orfeo since it is performed in English, represents a collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Roundhouse, and Michael Boyd’s staging in the round in the latter venue helps the piece to feel as fresh as ever.

With one exception (the tremendous Susan Bickley who plays the Messenger and is very well established), the cast consists of rising operatic stars, and they prove they can act and dance as well as sing. The drama occurs in the fields of Thrace and then Hades, with green paper ribbons filling the former setting before proving notably absent from the latter. Hierachies are also delineated well as a group of dancers dressed in boiler suits stand in stark contrast to all those who sport business attire or even richer garb. Figures such as Pluto oversee the action from above, even when they would not normally grace the stage, while bodyguards lie all around.

Occasionally, the acrobatics there are can feel distracting, but overall the use of movement works well, and the scene in which Orfeo loses Euridice is powerfully rendered. In order to keep her, he must lead her out of Hades without ever turning around to see if she is there. Here, the idea of a long walk is brought to life by utilising the large stage, an adjoining ramp, and figures who enhance the sense of movement by rolling between the two protagonists.

Conductor Christopher Moulds provides excellent leadership to the beautiful Orchestra of Early Opera Company, while there are a plethora of superb performances. Gyula Orendt and Mary Bevan excel as Orfeo and Euridice, Rachel Kelly is a brilliant Proserpina, while the bass or bass-baritone voices of James Platt (Charon) and Callum Thorpe (Pluto) are really something to write home about. The layout of the Roundhouse means that a ten or fifteen pound ticket should provide you with almost as good a vantage point as a top price one, meaning that a trip to see this Orfeo comes highly recommended.

Orfeo is at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8EH until 24 January with a start time of 7.30pm. Tickets (£10-75): 0300 6789 222 or visit the Roundhouse website.

Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 14 January 2015