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Sunday 29 September 2013

L'Orfeo at the Barbican

Academy of Ancient Music

This "concert hall staging" of L'Orfeo was the first in a projected Monteverdi cycle that the Academy of Ancient Music plans to undertake over the next three seasons. Director Orpha Phelan updates the piece to the present day, the wedding guests marching down the isles of the stalls in preparation for what looks like a typical British wedding. Security guards stand around in the foyer and onstage, one of whom it turns out is conductor/musical director Richard Egarr who surprisingly takes his place at the harpsichord. As Orfeo awaits his bride Eurydice, who it seems is not that keen to marry Orfeo, it is announced that she has been killed by a snake, though it seemed here that she might actually have been in some way murdered. Orfeo is lead by a nurse (Speranza) to Eurydice cadaver on a mortuary bed, and is discouraged from staying by an angry doctor (Coronte). Orfeo's grief here becomes a sort of mad scene, where he merely imagines going to hell. John Mark Ainsley is extremely moving here as he casts around desperately looking for a way out of his predicament. After the interval we see that Orfeo has hit the bottle, and he makes a scene in front of the party guests - the madness has not yet subsided as he hallucinates images of his dead wife. One of the guests (Plutone) takes pity on him at the urging of his wife (Prosperina) by giving Orfeo more drink and dressing him. Orfeo's father (Apollo) intervenes, telling his son to get a grip and Orfeo listlessly returns to society.

This basically coherent retelling of the story is a clear attempt to remove any classical references or supernatural elements from L'Orfeo, but it's not clear what the audience gains from this. Much of the libretto is rendered bizarre by the new context and it takes a long time to get used to the fact that what the characters are singing is meant to be only an approximation of what they actually mean. I find this sort of production distancing and alienating because you can't rely on your normal expectations of where suspension of disbelief is and isn't required - in short you have relearn the rules of the theatre. Or to put it another way, the realist setting suggests a realist/non-supernatural interpretation of the text, but since that is not attempted here (references to supernatural elements are merely ignored), the dramatic effect is jarring for longer than is comfortable or surely intended. Caroline Hughes' design is simple but serves the idea perfectly well - her lighting is the best part of this and she manages to create a real sense of atmosphere in Act III's mortuary mad scene.

Musically things were much more convincing. John Mark Ainsley is a moving Orfeo, still extremely controlled and expressive, though the voice has lost some of it's former bloom and flexibility. I instantly recognised Katherine Manley's voice having been so impressed with her as Creusa in the ENO's Medea earlier this year. She once again revealed a gleaming, expressive full lyric soprano with an excellent technique in the roles of Prosperina and one of the Nymphs - I would love to hear her in more recent repertoire. Sophie Bevan is luxury casting in the small role of Eurydice. Daniela Lehner was good as La Musica and Speranza, particularly in her low register which has an attractive colour. Thomas Hobbs made a powerful Apollo, beautifully matching John Mark Ainsley in their Act V duet. The smaller roles were mostly excellently taken by the rest of the young cast, though Paul Gerimon was sounding a little choked in the usually fearsome role of Coronte.

Richard Egarr's direction of the Academy of Ancient Music orchestra is energetic and large scale, an approach announced in the magnificent opening fanfare which here didn't so much dance as march into action. The continuo accompaniment is tasteful and varied, if not quite as colourful as seems to be the fashion in some French baroque ensembles. Orchestral playing is unerringly excellent, supporting the singers as gracious equals and Egarr doesn't underline anything - the sighing beauty of the string and woodwind lines, and the blaring majesty of the brass is left to speak for itself.

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