lietofinelondon

Oimè ! Non parlo Italiano

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Review – Orfeo (Royal Opera House at The Round House, Friday 16 January 2015)

Orfeo – Gyula Orendt
Euridice – Mary Bevan
Sylvia – Susan Bickley
First Pastor – Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo) – Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor – Christopher Lowrey
Charon – James Platt
Pluto – Callum Thorpe
Prosperina – Rachel Kelly
Nymph – Susanna Hurrell

Director – Michael Boyd
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia
Circus Director – Lina Johansson

Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

It seems that following the success of L’Ormindo at the Wanamaker, Covent Garden has once again performed ‘off-site’. But while I applaud the intention I’m not wholly convinced by their approach on this occasion.

But before I go further there was no doubting the commitment of the performers – both the singers and dancers – on stage. While I would personally have preferred a lighter-voiced Orfeo, Gyula Orendt made a vocally impressive and mesmerising Orfeo. His voice is beautifully resonant and darkly-hued and while he might not have as gracefully negotiated the melismas and other vocal decorations of the vocal line, he did bring to it a pathos and depth of feeling that matched his acting. As his tragic spouse, Mary Bevan’s singing was clean, clear and articulate. Her voice made me wont for ‘more’ Euridice and I can only hope that we see her in other Monteverdi and baroque roles with increasing frequency. Despite the diminutive role, Susan Bickley effectively dominated her own scenes as well as many of those where she was simply spectating. Her singing was rich with experience and weight, and Susanna Hurrell brought grace and charm to the role of the Nymph.

As members of a Renaissance-inspired court, the remaining cast provided strong if not strongly characterised support. The trio of pastors – and in particular Alexander Sprague – showed the most sympathy with Monteverdi’s music and the students from Guildhall acquitted themselves well in the choruses.

The dancing – by member of East London Dance – improved as the drama unfolded, moving from simply feeling like movement to fill the stage to some cleverly constructed tableaux for Orfeo’s descent into hell.

Boyd’s production, as I have already mentioned, drew its inspiration from the original courtly performance in Mantua, and considering the challenges of The Roundhouse, it was a well thought out production. I can’t think that there was a ‘good seat’ in the house. Personally I had to crane my neck to watch any action on the ramp and some of the stage was also obscured, but Boyd and his team kept things simple enough to create a sense of intimacy. However, Orfeo’s final ascent to heaven seemed more a theatrical gimmick than coup-de-theatre, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience more worried about the potential for Orendt to plunge headlong onto the stage that the closing moments of the music.

And finally, Christopher Moulds led a sprightly – if slightly colourless – band of musicians from the back of the stage, delicately shaping Monteverdi’s lines.

So why didn’t it work for me?

Well, try as I might, I couldn’t find anywhere in the programme where it said that that Orfeo was to be sung in English. It was on the website I admit but almost unnoticeable. I’ve no problem with opera in English but I think that Covent Garden’s reason is somewhat flawed. As expressed by them on the night I attended it was in English “for an audience unfamiliar with the opera”.

I understand that they are – like every other artistic organisation – desperate to attract new (and younger) audiences but I’m not sure translating Monteverdi was the best way. The words were critical to Monteverdi and his contemporaries – listen to any of his madrigals where word painting and the weight of emotion is wrapped up in the language used.

Translate it into English and invariably some of that – even with the best translation – is lost. For example, when the Messenger arrives to tell Orfeo of Euridice’s demise we get this:

Silvia: La tua diletta sposa è morta
Orfeo: Oimè

A single, crushing word that contains within it the complete tragedy of the opera. In translation we got “Oh, no”. Simply not the same.

If Covent Garden was bent on attracting new audiences, why not opt for Purcell? If they wanted pathos and tragedy then they needed look no further than Dido and Aeneas. And in terms of marketing I reckon “Britain’s First Great Opera” would have worked just as well.

Again, I searched the programme but I couldn’t find a clear explanation of why the singers were wearing microphones. Again, on the night, I was told it was “because of the acoustics of the place”.

So why The Roundhouse?

It’s not the first time – and speaking from personal experience of using this venue as well – this it has been acoustically-challenging. Did no one think of this and perhaps thought of finding a more suitable venue? The Wanamaker is already booked but what about Wilton’s? They would then have got the uber-trendy Shoreditch crowd to boot. Or why not schedule it for the main stage itself which has seen performances of Dido and – many years ago – a wonderful production of Steffani’s Niobe. Or the Linbury. Even ENO managed a very respectable production of Orfeo on their gargantuan stage with much success.

With top price tickets at £75, cynically I must wonder if the profit-per-seat ratio was an overriding factor.

Opera companies must find new ways to attract audiences as well as express themselves creatively, but (ad)ventures like Covent Garden’s Orfeo demonstrate how tricky it truly is. I’ve no doubt that there were many people in the audience who had never been to the opera before, but perhaps they might have enjoyed it more – and be tempted to try opera again – if Covent Garden had held truer to the original?

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  1. […] of the Monteverdi Orchestra and the singing of Lucy Crowe – and and Monteverdi’s Orfeo which was marred by being sung in English for no real […]

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