Wednesday, 14 January 2015

L'Orfeo, Royal Opera, 13 January 2015


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

Michael Boyd (director)
Tom Piper (designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Liz Ranken (movement)
Lina Johansson (circus director)
Vocal Ensemble from Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dancers from East London Dance
Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (conductor)

I am all in favour of our London opera companies moving outside of their West End homes – perhaps preferably a little further afield than Camden, but even that change of scenery can act as a liberating agent. For that, the Royal Opera is fully deserving of praise, and it certainly feels ‘different’ taking the Tube to Chalk Farm and arriving at the Round House, venue for a good number of Pierre Boulez’s BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, given when he similarly wished to break free of some of the stultifying conventions of bourgeois concert life and to seek new, more receptive audiences. It is a lovely touch to have children from local schools compose and perform fanfares – audibly related to Monteverdi’s celebrated opening Toccata – in the bar beforehand. As with Boulez’s innovation, one cannot but praise the broadening of repertoire too, Monteverdi, one of the very greatest of all opera composers, being conspicuous only by his absence from Covent Garden’s endeavours.

However, in this case, it is not entirely clear what remains of the Royal Opera, beyond its name as an umbrella organisation and presumably some degree of financial support. To bring in a ‘period’ orchestra at the same time as relocating gave the impression of Monteverdi being compartmentalised, surrendered to those whom Boulez so aptly summed up as ‘specialists in nullity’; moreover, what does it say about the worth the company attributes to its own, very fine orchestra, perfectly capable of performing repertoire from Monteverdi to Birtwistle? The world is full of ‘period’ performances of ‘early music’; is it really too much to ask that someone, somewhere might actually show the courage to stand up to ‘authenticke’ fatwas and use rich, modern forces? Or perhaps, even, to use one of the several ‘reimagined’ versions of Monteverdi’s score for our own or other times? Berio’s would perhaps have been the most obvious in this case, but there are many others; indeed, the task would have made a wonderful commission for an imaginative young (or old) composer.


The situation seems odder still in the light of a staging that is certainly not attempting some form of historical recreation. Nothing wrong with that, at all, of course; indeed, the idea is as silly onstage as in the pit – or here, onstage again, given that there was no pit. The post-modernism, in the worst sense, of mainstream ‘authenticity’, however is shown up for what it was, given the incoherence of approach. As Boulez once again put it with respect to the kindred movement of twentieth-century neo-Classicism, ‘People gather up all manner of bits and pieces and say, “O.K., I’ll put a Corinthian column on a metal base and it will look post-modern.” Obviously, this is all quite superficial.’

Alas, a greater problem with Michael Boyd’s staging lies in its incoherence even on its own terms. Rarely have I been so unclear as to what an opera staging was seeking to achieve. A host of theatrical clichés listlessly compete to amount to considerably less than the sum of their parts. We have a play within a play, vaguely nodding both to the work’s courtly origins (a royal couple, later revealed to be Pluto and Proserpina, seated above, under a crest) and some sort of modern-ish fascism-lite (hints of a prison, which soon vanish, security forces (?) all in black, and so on). The ‘look’ comes across as a mixture of student production and 1990s RSC, whilst the addition – I hesitate to say ‘incorporation’ – of dancers, a laudable community initiative in itself, is less than fully integrated, giving the impression of a school talent show. The choreography itself is embarrassing enough to make one think of David McVicar’s West End-musical assault on The Trojans. Piling more art forms upon each other – a ‘circus director’ is credited, though I am not quite sure for what – seems a grave misunderstanding of the Gesamtkunstwerk, itself a concept unduly emphasised by those who have most likely never read Wagner in the first place. Above all, given the overall incoherence, there is little sense of who these people actually are, let alone, most crucially, of how they relate to one another. Had I not known the opera, I suspect I should have found myself utterly at a loss, instead of only partly so.

Related to that is the most baffling aspect of all: what seems to be a Christianising concept, signalled not only by the transformation of shepherds into robed priests with crucifixes (‘pastors’, a play on words or at least upon origins only likely to register, let alone to be appreciated, for those with a cast list and who have checked it) and the English translation furnished by Don Paterson. Orfeo – why not ‘Orpheus’, if we are in English? – is presented in Christ-like imagery to start with, prefiguring his death; but it is far from clear that death is in itself a Christian concept, and little is done to explain why or even how we should plausibly consider the action in this sense. The final act in particular now takes upon itself an oddly Christian, or perhaps better, anti-Christian tinge, with words such as 'grace' in context accorded unsettlingly prominent emphasis. Quite apart from the question of why the work is being performed in translation – there are surtitles, which should surely be enough – the appearance of concepts such as ‘grace’ sit as awkwardly as the Christian elements in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Orfeo is not Parsifal, nor did it become so on this occasion. Given the choice, I should unhesitatingly stick with Alessandro Striggio – not, I hasten to add, on account of a nasty bout of Werktreue, but because transformations, should they be attempted, need to be considerably more coherent than these. I am not sure what the cuts are supposed to achieve, either; Orfeo is certainly not a lengthy work.

There was, however, much to admire in the singing; indeed, it was as a showcase for (mostly) younger voices that this performance really found its raison d’être. The undoubted star of the show – something would have gone wrong, had this been otherwise! – was Gyula Orendt, as Orfeo. A member of the Berlin State Opera, the Hungarian-Romanian baritone offered as powerfully-acted a performance on stage as I have seen for a long time. His facial expressions: tearful, hopeful, joyous, and, towards the close, benumbed, drew one in to his character as happens all too rarely on the operatic stage. (That may, of course, be partly a matter of the relative intimacy of the venue, at least for those of us fortunate enough to have been in the Stalls.) Although his vocal performance was not entirely flawless – he was not the only cast member to experience occasional difficulty with the hemiolas – to say more would be to nit-pick in the face of so committedly dramatic a performance. Mary Bevan offered a lovely Euridice, words and music as one – insofar as they could be in translation. Susan Bickley made the most of the Messenger’s pivotal appearances: one saw as well as heard the import of her news. Callum Thorpe and Rachel Kelly were equally impressive as the ‘royal’ (?) couple, Pluto and Proserpina. My only regret was that they did not have more to sing, but their acting was to be enjoyed more or less throughout. All members of the cast, though, impressed. Their ensemble, together with the splendid postgraduate singers from the Guildhall, offered a true instance of what opera should be: more, rather than less, than the sum of its part. (Mostly) subtle amplification dealt pretty well with the problematical acoustics, although certain oddities were unavoidable in a non-static staging.

Christopher Moulds might, however, have presented a more bracing account. Rhythms too often were on the soggy side; Ivor Bolton, in Munich last summer, had offered much more in the way of dance and, indeed, more general dramatic contrast. (He also had the benefit of an excellent production, one which it would be well worth the Royal Opera, ENO, or someone else considering bringing to London.) The continuo group proved far more impressive than the rest of the orchestra, its brass and, less but still too frequently, its strings sometimes excruciatingly out of tune. I can scarcely imagine the reaction, were such flawed playing to be served up by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; quite why audiences and critics are willing to put up with this in the name of ‘period performance’ remains an utter mystery to me. But then, so does the ideology as a whole; whatever it might be, it is certainly not ‘historically informed’.



Alexander said...

L'Orfeo is a work that I've loved since my student days, and I was pleased to see it fully staged for the first time in some years. I agree with you that the singing was indeed excellent and the playing a little less so, though perhaps the question of modern versus period orchestra is ultimately a matter of taste; I personally do favour “authenticke” instruments for repertory of this era, and find that Monteverdi sounds very odd on modern ones.

I had mixed feelings about the production, but felt more favourable towards it than you seemed to; and with all due respect, I would like to defend the Christian elements. I found the change of “pastori” into “pastors”, and of Orfeo's father-god Apollo into a Christian padre both witty and apposite in the context of an archetypally Renaissance work that is centrally concerned to try and reconcile pagan values with Christian ones.

This concern is explicit in a libretto which cites at least twice from Dante. When Hope / Speranza declares she must leave Orfeo alone to enter the underworld, she tells him that its entrance is inscribed with the rule conceived by Dante for his Christian hell: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate” / "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here". The quotation is musically emphasised by repetition, the second time transposed beautifully upwards. I find this one of the most conceptually moving moments in all opera for its encapsulation of the Renaissance desire to show that the pagan heritage could be redeemed for Christianity.

The citation also glances back to Act II, where Orfeo's last line is (although the effect was muffled by the non-literal translation we heard at the Round House) another direct quotation from Dante – the last phrase of the Inferno – as he vows to bring Eurydice back “to look again upon the stars” / “a riveder le stelle”. The echo in this context seems blasphemous bravado on the hero's part. That bravado is answered by Apollo's final injunction to put aside earthly things in favour of heavenly ones, a message which recalls pagan stoicism, but which is also perfectly in keeping with orthodox Christian values. Far from being shoehorned in, the term “grace” / “grazia” is in fact used in the last lines of Striggio's libretto:

Così va chi non s’arretra
Al chiamar di lume eterno,
Così grazia in ciel impetra
Chi qua giù provò l’inferno
E chi semina fra doglie
D’ogni grazia il frutto coglie.

I can't believe that a seventeenth-century audience would not have interpreted all this as a defence of Christian values expressed through pagan metaphor. Boyd's production offered us a anti-Christian take, of course, with the ending suggesting that Orfeo was far from consoled by Apollo's theology; but that, I thought, was a legitimate critique of values that most of us in Europe no longer share.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Alexander, and apologies for my poor, indeed misleading phrasing. I had not meant to imply that 'grazia' was absent from the libretto, but I did; for that, I only have myself to blame. (I'd be tempted to change what I wrote to clarify matters, but that might seem dishonest, so I shall leave it as it stands, with your welcome correction below.) I had meant to say that, in the context of the staging, the reference gave the impression of being shoehorned in, but again, that is not what I actually ended up saying.

Yes, the citation from Dante is obvious to all with ears to hear, though I don't understand it in quite the same way that you do. Yours seems a perfectly justified reading, though. I'm afraid, however, that, I simply found Boyd's transformation of pastori into pastors, etc., wilfully confusing.

Mark Berry said...

On second thoughts, I have altered that one sentence, so as to be (perhaps) contentious rather than downright misleading. It seemed to me that the latter served no purpose whatsoever, and your comments of course remain.

Alexander said...

Indeed, being able to revise one's work readily is one of the great advantages of the internet over print; there's no reason not to capitalise on the opportunity!

If and when you have time, I'd be fascinated to hear how you interpret the work's citations from Dante. Of course, "Poppea" also quotes Dante, and in that case the intention seems clearly impious: the sacred "amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" is placed in the mouth of the pagan god of profane, sexual love. But then, several decades had passed and a different librettist was involved: the implication of the citations in the two separate works might well be very different.