I have bought a £10 ticket for Gluck’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse. I am feeling quite smug about this. Even more when I discover what a good seat it is, with a clear view of the action, the surtitles and the harp. OK, everything is directed more pros-arch than in-the-round. At this price, I’m not complaining.
It’s not until the interval, when I lean over the shoulder of the man sitting next to me to sneak a read of his programme (£4), that I discover why the first half sounds so bewilderingly weird.
This isn’t Gluck’s Orfeo, and wasn’t ever going to be. It’s Monteverdi’s.
I’m trying to work out what the Royal Opera is doing at the Roundhouse. Cynicism is unavoidable – I’m sitting in a £10 seat, after all: they’re here to tick boxes that say “diversity”, “outreach”, “young people”. As Andrew Clements puts it in the first sentence of his Guardian review, they’re here to “connect with a wider audience”. In which case, why bloody Monteverdi?
Because the Royal Opera haven’t done Monteverdi’s Orfeo before, and this is a compact, intimate piece that calls for a room far less glitzy and self-important than Covent Garden. It’s nothing to do with wider audiences. It’s just giving people who are already aficionados – people who will pay good money to hear *baroque opera* played on *period instruments* – a change of scene at a lower price.
Based on his productions of Shakespeare’s History cycle, I have a lot of time for Michael Boyd. There is a rigour to his work that I admire. But the first half of Orfeo is really hard going, and not just because it’s from a period of music I mostly dislike. Its crepuscular austerity undermines the bucolic mood of the second act, and the insistent presence of a group of priests is befuddling. It takes quite a lot to trigger anachronism warning bells in my head, but a priest wearing a prominent gold crucifix singing the praises of Hymen, the pantheistic god of marriage, will do it every time.
Why does Music sing the prologue with her wrists in chains?
Why do the wedding frolics look so effortful?
Why is that woman thrashing about on the floor in a ball of green ribbons?
Why does Euridice stop following Orfeo, long before he looks back?
WHY IN THE NAME OF ZEUS IS EURIDICE HANGING FROM THE CEILING BESIDE A GIANT LAMPSHADE?
Boyd is a director of balance and precision. Every image in this production, every action, has its mirror elsewhere. The young dancers who leap and twirl, bringing life to the wedding party, surge and swell in the second half to form the deathly river Styx. The playful tug-of-war played by Orfeo and Euridice to seal their marriage has its echo when Orfeo is pulled away from her doom; moments later, we hear Echo herself, chiming out Orfeo’s misery. Euridice, suspended in Hades, becomes Orfeo, suspended from the heavens. You were too extravagant in your joy, a priest chides Orfeo; now you are too excessive in your sorrow. Always ready with the sermon.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian: “[Tom] Piper’s set reimagines the Mantuan court of the Gonzagas, for whom Monteverdi composed Orfeo in 1607, with the ruler and his consort (who are also Pluto and Proserpina in the fourth act) looking down on the circular performing space from a gallery.” [Oh! Useful, thanks.]
Barry Millington, Evening Standard: “The shepherds become ‘pastors’: clerical figures taking the role of gods, who give judgment on Orfeo’s hubristic attempt to outbid mortality.” [Right. Nope: doesn’t work for me.]
Michael Church, the Independent: “The shepherds’ dramatic function may indeed be to act as the voice of conformity and reason – as opposed to Orfeo’s wild passion – but this ecclesiastical scenario doesn’t illuminate much.” [Yep.]
Fiona Maddocks, the Observer: “After a frustrating first half when all seemed somewhat haphazard, the show grew more coherent until any initial resistance melted.” [Not quite – but almost.]
Rupert Christiansen, the Telegraph: “It seems odd to commission a fine translation from Don Paterson and then to engage a Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt, who has consistent difficulty enunciating English vowels.” [One for the UKIP voters there.]
But the singing, the singing. Boyd does Gyula Orendt few favours: the enchantment of his musicianship is represented by him prancing about the stage pretending to conduct the stripped-back orchestra – here, the Early Opera Company, elegance personified. But in his long aria attempting to persuade Charon to deliver him safely into the underworld, Orendt becomes radiant; no matter how persuasively played, every interjection from the instruments made in support of his claim feels like a grievous intrusion. Even if their characters never stop jarring, the two young priests – Anthony Gregory and Alexander Sprague (I think) – are mesmerising: one of them has a touch of Antony Hegarty about him, voice diving and swooping, viscous and gossamer, limpid, unearthly. Susan Bickley brings a similarly pellucid quality to the Messenger’s aria announcing Euridice’s death. Boyd never quite stops the opera feeling like a concert of soloists (musicians and singers) with a bit of dressing-up, but then he’s not directing Gluck, is he.
Me: “I saw the Royal Opera Orfeo last night.”
Aunt who loves opera: “Oh, really? I wouldn’t have thought that was your period.”
Me: “I didn’t check who the composer was before I bought the ticket.”
Aunt who loves opera: [with peal of laughter] “Oh dear.”
Me: “Not making that mistake again.”