CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI – Orfeo (1607)
An opera in Five Acts
Words by Alessandro Striggio
Cast of Singers
Music – Laura Loach
Orfeo – Will King
Euridice – Alexandra Gandianco
Nymph / Prosperine – Olivia Sheat
Shepherd 1 / Infernal Spirit 2 – Garth Norman
Shepherd 2 – Sally Haywood
Shepherd 3 / Infernal Spirit 1 – Peter Liley
Shepherd 4 / Infernal Spirit 3 – Minto Fung
Messsenger – Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby
Hope – Milla Dickens
Charon / Pluto – Joe Haddow
Echo – Tania Dreaver
Apollo – Theo Moolenaar
Chorus – Bill MacKenzie
Chorus – Philip Oliver
Eternity Renaissance Orchestra
Concertmaster – Anne Loeser (violin)
Viola – Sophia Acheson
Viola da Gamba & ‘Cello – Imogen Granwal
Cornetto & Trumpet – Peter Reid
Alto & Tenor Sackbuts & Recorder – Peter Maunder
Bass Sackbut – Jonathan Harker
Guitar – Christopher Hill
Theorbo – Jonathan Le Coeq
Triple Harp – Tiffany Baker
Music Director – Simon Romanos
Producers – Emma Beale, Minto Fung, Alex Galvin
Lighting – Haami Hawkins
Repetiteurs – Craig Newsome, Joel Rudolph
Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
Saturday 4th August, 2018
To my consternation, I learned after the performance on Saturday evening was completed, that this was to be the only “outing” for Eternity Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo! On a number of counts, this was regrettable, if only for the fact that I knew of a number of people who weren’t able to attend the performance and who had expected (as I certainly did) that there would be at least one further chance to catch up with it – a matinee the following afternoon, perhaps? But no, that was “it”, I’m afraid – and though I’m counting myself among the lucky ones who witnessed such a bold and breathlessly beautiful undertaking by Eternity Opera, I’m feeling dismayed by the thought that neither would a new audience be given the opportunity to enjoy Monteverdi’s masterpiece, nor would the performers be allowed the satisfaction of consolidating their achievement with a second public performance.
There would have doubtless been any number of reasons for this, both artistic and financial – my general lamentations merely reflect the interest and excitement which I experienced over the time leading up to the production, the in situ enjoyment of and pleasure in the performances, and the aftermath’s glow of satisfaction as I recalled the music’s and the presentation’s delights. A pity that such an enterprising venture (one, incidentally, which was completely sold out) lacked what it was in material terms that would have enabled the performance to have become a “season”, however tantalisingly brief a one!
But such was not to be – and we had, instead, performers giving their all as if their lives depended on the outcome, presumably buoyed along by knowing that this was going to be their only “shot” at the business in hand, and in the process conveying something of that feeling to we in the audience. Even before the music began our expectations of something out of the ordinary were galvanised by the presence of certain instruments alone, such as the gigantic theorbo, a viola da gamba, a triple harp, a cornetto and a couple of tarnished, trombone-like sackbuts alongside those which were rather more familiar, all brandished by the players of the Eternity Renaissance Orchestra.
In Monteverdi’s score over forty instruments are designated, though their exact usage was often decided upon by the interpreters depending upon the forces (and performing spaces) available – and the number of players needed were always fewer because the composer kept certain instruments for certain scenes. Here, for example, the score was realised by no more than nine players, some of whom changed to a different instrument in places – to give one example, sackbut player Peter Maunder demonstrated all-round skills with some nifty recorder playing at certain points.
At the beginning we very properly got all three renditions of the well-known opening flourishes, a martial-sounding toccata, played variously by the winds and strings at contrasting dynamic levels, as was the custom at the court of Mantua, in honour of the Duke. On the face of things an obsequious gesture very much of its time, the sounds have since become a splendid springboard for the entry of listeners into a timeless realm of expression, graced by Monteverdi’s music and Striggio’s poetry. Mentioning at this point the momentary inaccuracies of intonation and rhythm in the playing at the outset is to get the unimportant things out of the way, first – what fully engaged us instead was the music-making’s focused purpose and its continuation throughout the drama, a purpose which never flagged across the work’s five-act span.
This was a “concert” rather than a “staged” performance, and was sung in English, both of which circumstances enabling the Introduction’s singer, Laura Loach, to completely command the stage in the role of Music. Her whole deportment was arresting, her diction perfect, and her voice true, appropriately varied, and thoroughly engaging, everything beautifully balanced between voice and instruments. While neither Garth Norman nor Sally Haywood (as First and Second Shepherds respectively) could similarly imbue their voices with similar strength and precise focus, each maintained a steady vocal line with sufficient expression to give their words an inner life. Each of these singers then joined in with the choruses, as did the others at various times throughout.
Conductor Simon Romanos kept things judiciously moving between singers and instrumentalists, picking up the lines between voices and the various ritornellos and sinfonias as required, and keeping firm control of the numerous changes of rhythm and metre as well. He seemed to give the individual singers the space they required to properly “phrase” their individual figurations, and the instrumental ensemble similar leeway throughout. Olivia Sheat as Nymph took a few phrases-worth of space, I thought, for her voice to settle in her solo, though in the Fourth Act singing the part of Proserpine I thought her tones steady, her vocal inflections convincing and her sense of rapport with her cohort as Pluto, Joe Haddow, absolutely delightful!
With the arrival of Will King’s Orfeo on the scene, everything seemed to begin to pulsate more deeply, partly to do, I think with the expectation created by the imminent appearance of the eponymous hero, but also with King’s own vibrant sense of presence in the role, capped off by his fine, ringing voice! His on-stage partner, Alexandra Gandianco as Eurydice, though not as resplendent vocally, responded with a clear, true voice, leading up to the choruses which proclaimed the marriage, the “Come Hymen, come” sequence particularly beautiful, the voices evocatively augmented by instrumental strains. Various expressions of delight came from Peter Liley’s Third Shepherd, again the voice not especially voluminous but focused and agile – the singers felt more freedom in the following duet and trio, whose words remarked on the symbolic progress of winter to spring.
Act Two’s liveliness at the outset mirrored the nuptial happiness of Orfeo in his declaration of new-found joy at the beauty of the woods, and the sturdy duetted response of the two shepherds, Garth Norman and Peter Liley, with wonderful support from the ensemble, including great violin- and recorder-playing. The mood became even more euphoric with Orfeo’s comparison of his previous misery to his present joy, made all the more exuberant by King’s exultant singing and the ensemble’s energetic playing. All of this, of course, made the arrival of Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby’s Messenger all the more dark and disturbing, here given an expressively stark and tragic aspect by the singer’s power of concentrated sorrow in both appearance and voice. At the news of Euridice’s sudden death the shock was galvanic, the hurt unmistakable on Orfeo’s part, King’s response then beautifully grown out of his character’s dumbstruck grief towards a powerful and passionate resolve to rescue his beloved and bring her back “to see again the stars”.
Act Three’s sonorous opening brought both splendour and darkness, the brasses thrilling amid the occasional spill with both regal pomp at the beginning, and grimmer timbres of the utmost solemnity as Orfeo entered accompanied by Hope, attempting to gain access to the Underworld. Milla Dickens’ Hope was truly and steadily sung, the voice nicely expanding as it ascended, and stylishly negotiating the figurations, bringing convincing emphasis to the words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here!”. King’s impassioned plea for Hope to remain was startlingly interrupted by the infernal combination of voice and rasping instrumental timbres, from Joe Haddow as the ferryman Charon, challenging Orfeo’s presence with beautifully sepulchral tones, splendidly supported by the brasses. The hero’s famous aria “Possente spirto” received a tremendous performance from King, ably supported by various instrumental combinations, firstly the pair of duetting solo strings, followed by the cornetto, whose phrases were echoed most effectively offstage by a sackbut. Then the guitar, theorbo and bass viol augmented the singer’s fearless coloratura-punctuated passages, leaving the triple harp to fill the brief interlude before the singer’s “Orfeo am I” with flourishes and gestures that seemed to bring time to a standstill.
At the conclusion of King’s impassioned pleas of “Give me back my love”, we were riveted, taken up with the heart-rending eloquence of the singer’s supplications, so that no-one dared move, much less applaud!! The ensuing ritornello expressed Orfeo’s ultimate triumph, as Charon slept, allowing the hero entry into the infernal regions. Act Four began with the appearance of the Underworld’s Royal Couple, Proserpine and Pluto, the former pleading with the latter to allow Orfeo to take Euridice back to the world of light and stars with him. Both of the two singers I thought built on what they had established with a separate role earlier in the drama, Olivia Sheat as Proserpine seeming to me to “find” her focused tones more freely and comfortably than when a Nymph, and Joe Haddow as Pluto an even more darkly imposing personality than his Charon – between them they actually generated a touch of “infernal” chemistry, which, together with Pluto’s decision to allow Orfeo to recover Euridice bore out the chorus’s comment in the wake of the interchange “Today, pity and love triumph in Hell”.
From this came the extraordinary sequence of events during which Euridice was regained and then irretrievably lost by Orfeo, as he wrestled with his conflicting emotions before eventually disobeying Pluto’s edict that he was not to turn and look back at her during their outward journey. Will King conveyed most tellingly the character’s characteristic volatility with both body and voice, bearing out a later chorus comment that “Orpheus conquered hell, but was conquered by his own emotions – worthy of eternal fame shall be only he who has victory over himself”. Again, the character’s overweening confidence, underlined by the jaunty instrumental accompaniments, with strings and continuo giving the rhythms plenty of spring, was in a few moments dashed by a sudden loss of confidence and crisis of faith.
Even though the drama wasn’t in a strict sense “staged” here, I still felt the moment of Euridice’s loss was awkwardly presented by the protagonists in a visual sense – their actions and movements didn’t clearly enough convey what the words and music were saying (all admittedly difficult to do in a concert scenario!). Alexandra Gandianco’s singing admirably served to put across Euridice’s sorrow and despair, as did that of King as her would-be saviour, characterised here as reaping a whirlwind out of his impetuosities. The tragedy of the moment was superbly underlined by the sneering brasses, who joined with the strings and continuo to realise a sardonic processional, heralding the chorus’s already-quoted verdict on the hero’s flawed resolve.
A cruelly cheerful-sounding sinfonia launched the final Act, bringing Orfeo to those same woods where news of Euridice’s death was brought to him. Again, Will King was equal to the music’s possibilities, realising the character with an affecting sense of heartbreak and sorrow, the mood amplified by the affecting strains of Tania Dreaver’s voice as Echo, and further intensified by Orfeo’s self-indulgence in his grief, complaining at the paucity of Echo’s replies. It remained for Apollo to descend from the heights, Theo Moolenaar making a properly dignified entrance as the God of the Sun and Light and Healing, the voice comforting and true-toned, rather than overtly celestial and all-commanding, chiding Orfeo for his intemperance, and his obsession with earthly, as opposed to heavenly delights. Their duetting worked well as Orfeo was taken to heaven, having been promised by his father that he would enjoy Euridice’s likeness in the sun and the stars.
It fell to the chorus to further lighten the mood of tragedy with sprightly and energetic verses celebrating the hero’s transfiguration, a mood we were invited to join along with the singers and the ensemble by conductor Simon Romanos, our cheerful company clapping in time with the energetic moresca rhythms that concluded the work. Rather than belittling the story’s intensities and profundities, the “lightness of being” feeling engendered by these concluding gaieties served to highlight all the more the epic nature and scope of the drama we had witnessed, a quality of overall perspective which some of Mozart’s greatest music also possesses. It was to the company’s credit that the production and its performers realised, I thought, Monteverdi’s genius at bringing into being such a work, so that its impact, like Orfeo’s lyre, sang and resounded long after the work’s last strains had been sounded.