Thursday, 29 January 2015

Monteverdi - Orfeo (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Webcast)

Claudio Monteverdi - Orfeo

Royal Opera House at The Roundhouse, 2015

Christopher Moulds, Michael Boyd, Gyula Orendt, Mary Bevan, Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly, Callum Thorpe, James Platt, Susan Bickley, Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague, Christopher Lowrey

Royal Opera House Youtube - 21 January 2015

Monteverdi and the early Baroque composers believed that there were ancient precedents for setting drama to music, and their subjects were accordingly almost invariably those of Greek drama. If those views proved to be unfounded, the earliest proponents of this new art form at least discovered a highly expressive means of presenting the dramatic action, the personalities and the underlying themes. They invented opera.

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1609) is one of the first works that developed the music-drama into the form that is closest to what we are familiar with in the opera tradition of today, a fact that accounts for it still being performed regularly over 400 years later. Even long sections of accompanied recitative in L'Orfeo are melodic and wholly musical, flowing, expressive of the dramatic situations, sentiments and emotions of the characters involved. As a subject too, the musicianship of L'Orfeo is one worthy to act as a standard bearer for the artform, for the ingenuity and creativity of humans, for their ability to not only endure outrageous fortune, but emerge stronger from it and to create art from it.

Monteverdi was just the composer to exploit all the possibilities of the Orpheus myth. When Gluck set to work on a reformist agenda for opera some 150 years later, he too chose to work with the same myth, but stripped the work back to an exploration of human sentiments around grief, bereavement and coming through it in its forced happy ending. Monteverdi's version, benefitting from a beautifully poetic and incisive libretto, has a much wider range of human sentiments to work with. Where Gluck opens with a funeral, Monteverdi opens with a celebration of love, of nature, of marriage and community. It's more too than just working with mythology, or just a cautionary tale about the powers of the gods and the limitations of man. Monteverdi makes much of Orpheus as a musician, celebrating the power of music to elevate humanity and through it express their aspiration to approach divinity.

That's part of what Monteverdi's L'Orfeo is about, and it's part of what opera itself is all about. Monteverdi's work also recognises and takes advantage of the dramatic nature of this new artform and the possibilities this offers. L'Orfeo has a number of highly dramatic scenes that push human sentiments and endurance to its limits, and the staging needs to match and support the lengths to which these themes are developed. What greater way, and what more visually splendid way, than showing a man descend to the depths of Hades, negotiate with the god of the Underworld himself, and then later transcend to Heaven itself? That still needs to be exploited on the stage as much as in the music in any modern production and that's the challenge that Michael Boyd would have had to address for this Royal Opera House production at the Roundhouse.

The Roundhouse is an interesting venue for a Baroque opera, much more appropriate one feels than a large opera house. Or at least that's the impression given even when viewed via a web broadcast. Simplicity and intimacy is however also clearly the intent of the production design, in the smart modern-classical costumes and in the performances themselves. Avoiding the danger of being stiff and static in playing and delivery, it never feels like a stuffy Baroque work, but one that is in the here and now, dealing with real emotions and sentiments. It's achieved with a minimum of stage effects, Michael Boyd's direction allowing dancers to give a further sense of flow and momentum, as well as being representative of scenes in the Underworld. Some 'circus' acrobatic effects are used well however in those critical scenes that needs an extra bit of a 'lift'.

Performed in the round, the musicians also are not hidden in a pit, but are there in the background. If not a actual part of the production, it nonetheless contributes to the connection between the musicians and the drama, where some degree of improvisation and elaboration are a vital component. There is a more evident interaction between the voices and the individual in Baroque opera, with distinct instruments often being used to define and colour character. The arrangement here allows the tone and the quality of the period instruments to be fully expressed and heard, plucking harsh notes or beautiful string accompaniments that comes across well at least in the streamed broadcast, and I'm sure even more effectively live in the theatre.

As ever much in this work depends on the quality of the voices used, particularly for how Orpheus uses his voice to sway even the dark heart of Pluto with his music and singing. Casting of Orpheus can vary from the deeper Georg Nigl tenor to the light and lyrical John Mark Ainsley, but here we have baritone 
Gyula Orendt with a wonderful clarity and power in his expression that is undoubtedly enhanced by the venue and the arrangements. The key scene where Orfeo tries to persuade Pluto is one of the greatest moments in all opera - is practically the definition of opera, the power of human expression enveloped in music and the singing voice - and it's sung and staged spectacularly well here. Orfeo is well-matched with the clear enunciation and flowing ornamentation of Mary Bevan's Eurydice.

It's incredible that Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, four-hundred years old, and one of the earliest if not the very first opera, still stands as one of the greatest works and showcases for the artform. The Roundhouse production, testifying to the power of the work on just about every level of musicianship and stage craft, reminds you exactly why that is.

Links: YouTube, Roundhouse