Longborough Festival 2023 – Monteverdi’s Orfeo – Peter Gijsbertsen, Aoife Miskelly, Frances Gregory & Julien Ségol; directed by Olivia Fuchs; conducted by Robert Howarth

L’Orfeo – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Alessandro Striggio [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Orfeo – Peter Gijsbertsen
Euridice – Aoife Miskelly
Proserpina / Messenger – Frances Gregory
Caronte – Freddie Tong
Nymph – Rosie Lomas
Music – Caroline Taylor
Hope – Siân Cameron
Shepherd – Andrew Irwin
Apollo / Shepherd – Seumas Begg
Shepherd / Infernal Spirit – Nicholas Morris
Plutone / Shepherd / Spirit – Julien Ségol

La Serenissima
Robert Howarth

Olivia Fuchs – Director
Nate Gibson – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting
Clare Whistler – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 16 July, 2023
Venue: Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England

So well-known is the myth of Orpheus (not least because it was treated as the subject of several of the earliest operas) and so urgently direct is its retelling by Alessandro Striggio in the libretto of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, that it doesn’t necessarily need much embellishment in its staging. Olivia Fuchs’s production is all the more effective for its simple presentation and concept (though not simplistic or facile), and for the cast’s unfussy gestures and movements. It said a great deal for the performance I saw that, at the moment of Orpheus’s dramatic turning around to see Euridice as he leads her out of Hades, there was a palpable gasp from the engaged audience – perhaps hoping against hope that he wouldn’t breach Pluto’s harsh rule and lose her forever.

The production starts off straightforwardly with a round pergola or arch, and some stands for lamps, adorned with green foliage as a nod to its originally Arcadian setting. It becomes more immediate and personal here with the appearance of Orfeo, the celebrity musician, as like a rock singer, and similarly with Euridice and the guests at their wedding. Although that is not an especially domineering or obtrusive concept, an ironic connection is made later, when Plutone (Pluton) and Proserpina in Hades also resemble such rockers in their black attire, as they reflect on their own love for each other and are moved to have mercy upon Orfeo at the point where his partnership with Euridice has apparently been fatally sundered. Just as visually potent is when Orfeo staggers off in search of Euridice after her death, and appears behind an illumined sheet as just a silhouette, like the shadow to which she has been reduced in the underworld.

Rawer is the bringing on of Euridice on a hospital bed with drip, making very immediate to contemporary audiences the reality of her death, and Caronte (Charon) as some sort of vengeful surgeon whom Orfeo has to pass on his way to rescue Euridice after her demise. Nonetheless the contrast between the essentially abstract setting initially, and the very real recreation of death within a medicalised, hospital context neatly invokes Nietzsche’s argument about the purpose of tragic drama in The Birth of Tragedy. However much the disciplines of the sciences and rational inquiry (‘Apollonian’ virtues which Nietzsche associated with Socrates) advance our knowledge of one dimension of reality, there are still the fundamental, irreducible facts of life (indeed mysteries, such as birth, love, and death) which those disciplines cannot ultimately control or comprehend, and which we still need tragic drama to mediate and make sense of to our deeper, emotional faculties, once ordinary, impersonal scientific analysis is done with.

Curiously, Fuchs appears to want to qualify the metaphysical power of art to confront those themes by having Caronte succumb not to Orfeo’s singing but rather only when he is induced by Orfeo to sleep or a coma with some liquid chemical from a bottle. Otherwise that point or idea is not pursued, and so remains obscure. Even so, Peter Gijsbersen in the title role gives a commendably eloquent and settled performance, with hardly any histrionics, but no less compelling for that. What emerges is an impressive virtuosity in vocal register, starting with quite a hefty baritonal timbre in his moment of elation, but moving to higher flights of desperation at the news of Euridice’s death, settling into more mellifluous strains for his soliloquy opening Act Five. With little to sing, Aoife Miskelly is an affecting presence as Euridice herself.

By contrast Julien Ségol and Frances Gregory are more quirkily charismatic as the principal pair of the underworld, Plutone and Prosperina, though Gregory adeptly rings the changes with her earlier, nervous appearance as the Messenger who imparts the tragic news of Euridice’s death. Where Caroline Taylor and Siân Cameron are rightly commanding as the allegorical figures Music and Hope (although the former falls logically in place, in the drama, as a figure at the wedding ceremony) Freddie Tong and Seumas Begg downplay the grandiloquence of the other unworldly, mythological figures, with their voluble, not heavily rhetorical accounts of Caronte and Apollo, fitting in with this essentially humanised interpretation of the work. Similarly, Begg, Andrew Irwin, Nicholas Morris and Ségol depict the Shepherds (also wedding guests here) with a certain idiomatic earthiness.

La Serenissima’s performance with Robert Howarth at the keyboard is notable and welcome also for its general moderation and calm expressiveness, which doesn’t aim for immediate, colourful effects (though the instruments are certainly timbrally vivid) but for wider structural cohesion. There is a clear progression from the piquant plucked textures in the first section (against a sonorous backdrop of lower-voiced instruments, together providing a diverse euphony for Orfeo’s joy) to the more solemn, sustained tones of organ and strings once that happiness is dashed, and the wind instruments then shade seamlessly into that as the drama moves down – emotionally and physically – into darker realms. The harp’s somewhat ethereal notes make for an aptly haunting accompaniment to Orpheus’s first lament in Act Two.

This production is a vital demonstration that less is more in Monteverdi’s enduring masterpiece, allowing its poetry and music to speak with as much urgency as it surely did to its first audience in 1607.

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