Claudio Monteverdi, libretto by Alessandro Striggio
Garsington Opera, Wormsley
Orfeo, poet and musician, the biggest pop star of his era, was endowed with a lyre which he strummed and plucked all day, enchanting everybody and everything, animals, trees, rocks, you name it. He even tamed the Sirens. The golden lyre was a gift from his dad, Apollo, god of music and poetry. The opera is about the power of music to soothe and inflame.
Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which premièred in Mantua in 1607 and is arguably the first great opera, has two different endings. This production by John Caird, conducted by Laurence Cummings and designed by Robert Jones, which premièred at Garsington Opera on the 21 October and was filmed live, has Orfeo joining Euridice in heaven.
You may have heard rumours that Orfeo was torn to pieces by Thracian women at a Bacchic orgy. I checked with a Thracian spokesperson in Lesbos and she said it was all nonsense and fake news.
The opera opens with everybody, singers, dancers, orchestra (on stage) nymphs, shepherds, sprites, all smiling, all barefooted and all wearing white. (The audience, too, was invited to wear white or cream to reflect the production.) Everybody is dancing for sheer joy. Singers and dancers merge into one ensemble and you can’t tell the difference between them.
It’s all bright and cheerful in Arcadia and then in an instant everything goes from joy to misery and all is misty, dark and gloomy. Euridice is declared dead, bitten by a snake. A neat bit of casting has Diana Montague as the Messenger who brings the bad news. She is such a motherly figure you think she must be Euridice’s mother. The shepherds mourn the death deeply.
Orfeo (Ed Lyon) is initially stunned to silence. He stares into space; his face, full of pain and sorrow, speaks volumes. His journey to the underworld to retrieve Euridice (Zoe Drummond) is a powerful sequence, given impetus by the chorus. He induces Charon (Frazer Scott) to sleep and steals his ferry, ignoring the well-publicised warning: Abandon hope, all who enter Hades.
Persephone (Lauren Joyanne Morris) and Pluto (Ossian Huskinson), two glamorous and imperious gods, contribute to the drama, she persuading him to release Euridice. Ed Lyon, challenging the gods to give Euridice back to him and threatening to grieve for ever when he loses her for a second time, is a vocal force to be reckoned with.
After the curtain call, the company sing a beautiful madrigal by Monteverdi, “Che dar piú vi poss'io?”, which is a beautiful way to finish the performance.
Garsington Opera’s Orfeo can be watched free on the OperaVision channel.
Reviewer: Robert Tanitch