No need to abandon hope with this stellar opening night production at Garsington.
‘In sweet music is such art / Killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, and hearing die’ (Shakespeare). Orfeo’s sweet music did not quite kill his care and grief in Monteverdi’s opera, but in this brilliantly conceived production by John Caird we are left in no doubt about the power of music not only to express feeling but to transform humanity. There are some attempts at this opera which have you wishing that the Furies would sweep in and trash the whole production, but here at Garsington on this glorious sunny evening, instruments, voices, dancing, staging and acting all came together to provide the complete work which the music deserves.
Instead of an orchestra and conductor in the pit, the players of The English Concert and Laurence Cummings, directing from the harpsichord, were all onstage and an integral part of the whole, their costuming and demeanour linked to the singers and dancers in an entirely unaffected way. Instead of Orfeo clutching a soundless lyre or a beer bottle, (yes, really, it has been done) we had a golden harp played by a flame-haired harpist. There was no striving for effect, all was organically achieved, and even though some of the audience had not accepted the invitation to dress in accordance with the production’s cream colour scheme (what’s wrong with you people?) the auditorium and stage felt as one.
Those with long memories will recall the astounding singing of Nigel Rogers and, later, John Mark Ainsley in the title role; here the challenge was taken up by Ed Lyon, whose tone is sweeter than Rogers’ and heavier than Ainsley’s, and if his mastery of the terrifying passagework is not quite as commanding as that of those tenors, he makes the lines sound easy and natural. ‘Possente Spirto’ was the heart-rending plea that it ought to be, and his performance of both the joyous lines of Act I and the tremendous ambition of the Underworld scenes demonstrated Orfeo’s stature as a demigod who ‘drew wild beasts to him by his singing’.
“…we are left in no doubt about the power of music not only to express feeling but to transform humanity”
Diana Montague is one of those rare singers who steal any show – in the best possible way – and her Messenger was one of the great operatic moments, that lovely, warm mezzo as honeyed as it was when she sang Ocatavian and Cherubino years ago. Long may she continue to perform what she calls the ‘old bag’ roles. Claire Lees’ La Musica held the audience in the palm of her hand with her song, even the birds silent as the lines request, and Laura Fleur’s ‘dolcissima Speranza’ was ideally consoling. Anna Cavaliero’s Nymph and Zoe Drummond’s Eurydice were equally promising young singers, as were the vigorous shepherds, with Dafydd Jones stepping in at short notice to take on extra lines.
Frazer Scott’s Charon was mesmerizing, as was Lauren Joyanne Morris’ Persephone, and Ossian Huskinson’s Plutone was superbly unctuous. These denizens of the underworld were surrounded by spectral black-clad figures only just recognizable as the same ones who cavorted merrily as nymphs ‘n’ sheppyherds in Act I. Arielle Smith’s fluent, poetic choreography was especially strong in these scenes, aided by a superb group of dancers led by Amber Doyle, and Jonathan Cole-Swinard’s direction of the chorus made these scenes of gloomy underworld just as engaging as those in the pastoral fields.
Caird’s production is one of those rare events where the effect is so seamless that it seems almost impertinent to separate individual components. Robert Jones’ vivid setting of the Arcadian first part, the stage filled with all the varied greens of early May, surmounted by the round O of eternity or heaven, later to be the portal to the underworld, is immediately gripping. The concept of Charon’s boat is a real coup de théȃtre at once sinister and engaging, with Paul Pyant’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting providing the crepuscular gloom of Hades as convincingly as the warm sun of the fields.
Laurence Cummings and the musicians of The English Concert shared the stage, with the conductor barefooted and suitably cream-attired, and the harpist who provided Orfeo’s ‘famosa cetra,’ Joy Smith, dramatically lit and connected to Orfeo by gesture. The joyfulness of the whole show owed much to the players, especially Sergio Bucheli and Pablo FitzGerald on Theorbo and Pedro Segunda on percussion, and the musical standard was superb throughout. Tempting though it is to reveal the surprising yet entirely appropriate way in which the Apollo scene is handled, suffice to say it was a brilliant solution to a knotty theatrical problem. An ecstatic audience was rewarded with a Madrigal from Monteverdi’s Libro V di Madrigali, ‘Che dar piú vi poss’io?’ sung by the cast with touching grace.
• Further information on future performances can be found here.