Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’Orfeo @ Barbican Hall, London

28 September 2013

What was Bobby Baccala doing as Capo di tutti Capi? Surely marriage to the ghastly Janice would have put paid to any such ambitions – and wasn’t he shot anyway? Eh, T – sorry, got carried away…

This was billed as “An Orfeo for our times” – now there’s an assertion to make you cringe. I don’t know about you, but my times don’t include sunglassed heavies and slutty broads at mafia weddings, and the Pastoral is just as valid an entity to me as the Sopranos. Orfeo is the original nymphs n’ sheppyherds opera, but at the Barbican there was not a Corydon in sight. A welcome omission for some, although most of us did balk at the hackneyed notion of stage drunkenness – and as for a bottle standing in for the ‘famosa cetra,’ I despair. However, none of this mattered very much, because the singing and playing were both first class.

John Mark Ainsley is not just the king of tenors in this repertoire, he is also the consummate professional who never ceases to amaze, not only with his stunning vocal technique and poetic expressiveness, but with the way in which he completely subsumes himself into whatever directorial concept is involved. Thus, here he was singing away about how the power of his music could triumph over the underworld, whilst drooping about in a pathologist’s lab and brandishing a bottle; and there he was, emo-ho-hoting as if he were Rodolfo sobbing over Mimi. ‘Possente Spirto’ was still the great set piece it ought to be, a testament to the singer’s art, the terrifying coloratura spun out with what seemed to be consummate ease, although anyone with knowledge of this music will be aware that this is the ultimate example of that art which conceals itself. As ever, Ainsley was completely convincing both vocally and histrionically, the pleas to Apollo as fluent as ‘Rosa del Ciel,’ and ‘Tu, sei Morta’ as emotionally draining for us as for Orfeo himself.

In a strong cast, Thomas Hobbs stood out as ‘The Godfather’ (Apollo),his rich-toned tenor reminding you of Ian Partridge’s singing of the role, and his phrasing both elegant and heartfelt: a great voice and a convincing stage presence. Daniela Lehner’s ‘Wedding Singer’ (Musica) and ‘Nurse’ (Speranza) were both finely characterized and sung with burnished tone, and Sophie Bevan was a credible and sweet-toned Euridice. Dawid Kimberg’s ‘Bartender’ (Plutone), Paul Gerimon’s ‘Pathologist’ (Caronte), Katherine Manley’s ‘Bartender II’ (Prosperpina) and the two ‘Ushers’ (Shepherds) of Christopher Lowrey and Richard Latham, all made striking contributions to this ensemble piece.

This is the 40th anniversary year of the Academy of Ancient Music, and it’s such a privilege to know that this wonderful orchestra has been growing in musical stature as its audience has been growing in understanding of this repertoire. Richard Egarr directed a gloriously authentic performance, the dances the very apotheosis of joyful movement (shame there was none to be seen) and the ‘arias’ accompanied with loving skill, shaping the singers’ utterances with complete naturalness. Every section shone, and the AAM Choir sang with crystalline clarity: what a pity that the Furies could not have come along and trashed the production.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.

buy John Mark Ainsley MP3s or CDs
Spotify John Mark Ainsley on Spotify

More on John Mark Ainsley
Nash Ensemble / Ainsley @ Wigmore Hall, London
Ainsley / Martineau @ Wigmore Hall, London
Messiah @ Royal Festival Hall, London
L’Orfeo @ Barbican Hall, London
St John Passion @ Kings Place, London