Review – L’Orfeo by Monteverdi

Barbican, 28th September 2013

It’s not often that we get to hear a full Renaissance orchestra: the fanfaric blasts of cornetts, the persistent buzz of harpsichords, the richness of the viol family. But the Academy for Ancient Music’s production of L’Orfeo gave us all this and more. The opera itself is consistently beautiful, an early and bold foray into the use of recitative and a move away from the cluttered polyphony of Monteverdi’s contemporaries. It tells the story of mythical musician par excellence Orpheus whose fiancée, Eurydice, is killed on their wedding day. In his grief, Orpheus travels down to the underworld to rescue her, winning the sympathy of Proserpina and Pluto with his devastatingly sad and beautiful music. He can take her back on the condition that, as he leads her out of the underworld, he does not look back at her. Oh dear, that’s exactly what he does and she disappears forever.

The story is told and retold by a great many classical authors, most strikingly by Vergil who uses Orpheus as a symbolisation of music against Aristaeus as the symbol of agriculture in a cryptic, multivalent finale to his poem The Georgics (thanks, Classics degree). And, according to the pre-show talk, several other composers around the time of Monteverdi were using the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice in their works too. So, with such a rich and varied tapestry of tradition to draw from in the staging of this classic myth, which did director Orpha Phelan opt for? None. Instead, we were presented with The Sopranos: The Musical. Obviously.

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This was fine in the first act, which is just a wedding scene. The singers were wearing modern wedding clothes, and there was some nifty choreography involving those uncomfortable folding chairs you find at weddings. But the idea was stretched beyond absurdity at the point when Orpheus bargains with Charon to cross the Styx. Phelan chose to represent this as Orpheus standing in a morgue with Charon in scrubs and Eurydice on a slab in the middle. I am very much in favour of innovative new staging ideas, but only when they make sense. In the post-show talk (the Barbican does spoil us) Phelan tried defending the relocation as an effort to make the situation more relatable for a modern audience. She explained that we would not understand the values system of the mythological setting, but that we could identify with gangsters.

I’m going to put my proverbial Classical hat back on: I think that Phelan is trying to imbue the characters with a psychological essence that is not there and that is not important. I think there is a reason that for his groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting piece of music Monteverdi chose Orpheus as the subject and that is because Orpheus represents music. He is not a character in the sense that we tend to understand today, obsessed as we are with origin stories and traumatic childhoods, like Bruce Wayne. Instead, Orpheus is a symbol. Like Batman.

Thankfully the gangster setting did not detract from the fantastic music and the phenomenal singing. Conductor Richard Egarr switched impressively from playing the harpsichord to conducting and John Mark Ainsley as Orpheus was really excellent, even at the strange twiddly bits that Monteverdi seemed to like a lot. There are none of the belting arias that opera usually promises, but L’Orfeo is very pleasant to listen to, an operatic prototype – just as Orpheus himself was the prototypical musician whose work was so exquisite that it could even charm the gods.

Four stars ****

Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican


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