This first collaboration between the houses Round and Royal Opera is also the latter’s first-ever staging of Monteverdi’s masterpiece; the story of the singer who could tame wild beasts with his music has lent itself to just about every treatment, from Trisha Brown’s intense dance-driven interpretation to the Mafia-wedding style offered at the Barbican in 2013. This time, the former RSC director Michael Boyd, making his operatic debut, produced a reading that was more pastor than pastoral, sung in a graceful, idiomatic translation by the poet Don Paterson and making impressive use of the grandiose space at his disposal.
Instead of the nymphs n’ sheppyherds of the Pastoral, the stage was peopled with a mix of boiler-suited ‘amici’ and solemnly-robed priests, with the ‘gods’ looking down in ‘secret influence.’ It’s certainly a novel concept to mix the traditions of classical myth with those of Catholic theology, although the ending might well puzzle those expecting something more in keeping with the jaunty final bars of the music, which extol the hero’s braving of the underworld and reaping the fruits of all grace.
It goes without saying that this is an opera which stands or falls by its Orfeo, and in the baritone Gyula Orendt we had an absolutely credible hero whose occasional unidiomatic pronunciation was compensated for by his complete commitment to the part; whether pleading with James Platt’s commanding Charon, or mourning the loss of Mary Bevan’s forceful, solemn-toned Euridice, Orendt succeeded in making us feel both his sufferings and his joys. Anyone who delighted in his Nardo in Glyndebourne’s La finta giardinera will not be surprised to learn that his is a genuinely individual stage presence.
Amongst a very strong cast, Rachel Kelly’s Proserpina stood out for the sheer beauty of her tone and the elegance of her phrasing, and four ROH debutants made very strong impacts – Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague shone as First and Second pastor/Apollo respectively, the countertenor Christopher Lowrey was another young voice you’ll want to hear again, and Callum Thorpe’s Pluto was ideally sonorous. Susan Bickley brought all her long-acquired depth of understanding to the role of Silvia, and Susanna Hurrell’s Nymph gave as much pleasure as did her Erisbe in L’Ormindo.
Despite a slightly raw beginning, the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company under Christopher Moulds delivered a lively account of the music, seamlessly bringing together the worlds of Thrace and Hades and giving just the right hint of unrefined abandon when required, especially amongst the percussion and trumpets. The vocal ensemble from the Guildhall, and the mostly very young dancers from East London Dance, proved that such wide-ranging collaboration was worth the risks, especially in the scenes in and around Hades, where the waters of the Styx and the fateful portals were depicted by grey-clad figures in various dispositions.
The vast space of the Roundhouse still recalls its days as a turntable engine shed, and it was one of the great pleasures of this production that such care had been given to the management of the distances involved in the actions, and to covering such distances with tightly focused, relevant and often beautiful action. The programme booklet (scholarly, readable) shows some of the influences on Tom Piper’s designs and Jean Kalman’s lighting, for example Hieronymus Bosch’s The Ascent of the Blessed which looks as if that 15th-16th century artist had had in his mind a vision of Orfeo rising up through the Roundhouse’s central aperture.
It was similarly inspired of Liz Rankin to use the fluid, at times mesmerizing quality of rolling bodies to emulate the Styx – again, one was taken back to an iconic portrayal, that of Blake in The Circle of the Lustful, and reminded that although the production was rooted in such images, it still allowed the music to speak for itself. The sound design, by SoundIntermedia, fitted into the whole without intrusion, and even the circus skills, directed by Lina Johannson, were performed with such insouciant grace by the young dancers that even diehard purists would be unlikely to mourn the absence of a Corydon or two.