Orfeo is widely considered to be the first master work of opera ever written, and is certainly the oldest surviving opera that is still regularly performed today. Pair that heritage with director Michael Boyd, whose Shakespeare’s Histories cycle is cited as “one of the most memorable productions ever at the Roundhouse” by the venue itself, and designer Tom Piper, whose Tower of London poppy installation became the must-see work of art of 2014 – well, you’re surely onto a winner, right?
This collaboration between the Roundhouse and the Royal Opera strips the work back in a stark production that lets Monteverdi’s score shine. The Orchestra of the Early Opera Company (conducted by Christopher Moulds) performs it bewitchingly, somehow making a 400-year-old score feel innovative even as we relish their period instruments of sackbuts and lutes.
The casting is strong and clearly supportive of emerging performers, as it includes postgraduates from GSMD in the chorus and two participants from ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme: Irish soprano Rachel Kelly shines in the small part of Persephone, her beautifully full tones loaded with emotion, while James Platt also impresses as Charon. In the title role, baritone Gyula Orendt is soulful with a richness that overcomes any acoustic problems in the venue, for which this is the first operatic production. His Act V soliloquy, lamenting his loss of Eurydice and of love in general, is a highlight. Yet while his softer sections are effectively restrained to intensify the emotion, I couldn’t help wishing for more in the crescendos and climaxes – and this is a problem that haunts many elements of this production. We are not taken to enough of an extreme to get swept up in the epic tale of love and loss.
This is a story that should take us from the heights of heady, love-struck joy, to the depths of absolute despair. Yet much of this production remains on one level, and while there are occasional flashes of excited energy, overall it is a plateau that is lacking the necessary peaks and troughs of emotion. Consequently, the big moments – the death of Eurydice, the moment that Orpheus looks back in the Underworld – are disappointingly underwhelming. The design, too, is not as bold as you would hope for: it seems as if everyone is for some reason holding back. Costumes are an odd mixture, with some rather shapeless and dated ensembles distracting from bold modernity elsewhere.
Young performers from East London Dance provide some much-needed fluidity and interest. While the choreography may not be perfect, with a rather clunky solo section that seems at odds with its accompaniment, the dancers’ depictions of sorrow and joy, and their ebbs and flows, are a welcome addition to an otherwise static production.
Overall this is a rather mixed affair, strangely holding back from the theatrical spectacle it could provide. Some disappointing design choices and stagnancy in the direction sadly detract from striking musicality and an impressive cast.
Orfeo is playing at the Roundhouse until 24 January. For more information and tickets, see the Roundhouse website.