sat 02/03/2024

L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival Opera review - landmark opera survives rock-star wedding and hospital soap | reviews, news & interviews

L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival Opera review - landmark opera survives rock-star wedding and hospital soap

L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival Opera review - landmark opera survives rock-star wedding and hospital soap

A strongly-sung descent into the underworld overcomes hit-and-miss stagecraft

Showbiz royalty: Orfeo (Peter Gijsbertsen) and Euridice (Aoife Miskelly)All images ©Matthew Williams-Ellis

Cotswold Line railway stations currently sport posters for Alex James’s “Big Feastival”, in which the ex-Blur bassist hosts a food-and-music jamboree on his cheese-making farm. Just up the road at Longborough Festival Opera, the crowd gathered on stage for the nuptials of Orfeo and Euridice would fit snugly in chez James as well.

For Olivia Fuchs’s new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, an arch wreathed in laurels presides over a chilled-out parade of casual summer wear, with glam accessories, as the rock-god singer finally gets to wed his beloved. An atmosphere of B-list villeggiatura, more Muddy Stilettos than Country Life, sets the tone for the sort of wedding that might have David Cameron top of the guest list.

With its slightly naff bucolic glitz, and (unplayed) drum kits and electric guitars, the opening look for Longborough’s take on Monteverdi’s revolutionary “favola in musica” of 1607 may irritate as much as its sound delights. Nate Gibson’s stage design, its spiral ramp coiling up towards a circular platform, helps to conjure not a divine dreamworld so much as a bourgeois festival frolic: Renaissance pastoral, after all, routinely took the form of elite fantasies about the simple life. After the cast assembles, Caroline Taylor’s La Musica welcomes us to a celebration of music and love that, from ring dances to wedding cake, oozes showbiz self-regard more than godlike artistry.L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival OperaThat’s the point, of course. Monteverdi’s trail-blazing music-drama will soon lead down to a far darker place. For now, Peter Gijsbertsen’s low-lying tenor, in numbers such as “Rosa del ciel”, endows Orfeo with a crooner’s shallow charisma, not genuine lyric heft. If this Orfeo’s role as a cheesy glam-rock frontman (pictured above) somewhat blunts the edge of his heaven-sent ardour, it also leaves Gijsbertsen with plenty to prove. Rosie Lomas’s Ninfa tenderly lauds the happy couple as the cake is cut and toasts drunk, to robust choral hosannas from the 12-strong cast. In the pit, Robert Howarth directs Baroque specialists La Serenissima. Their flavoursome and fine-boned period-instrument playing – from the opening fanfares onwards – initially feels a little at odds with the generic modern-dress merry-making above. 

Come the Messenger, Sylvia, and everything changes. Frances Gregory (later to return as Proserpina) proves outstanding as the party-pooper who flips joy to grief, her rich mezzo aceing the tricky narrative of “In un fiorito prato”. The fatal snake-bite that slays Euridice may plunge the star singer from ecstasy to agony, but frees Gijsbertsen to show infinitely richer vocal colours. He caught the moaning, faltering fragility of Orfeo’s despair as a downpour aptly, and ominously, drummed on the Longborough roof. From now on, Gijsbertsen commanded a vein of rueful, tragic intensity, as if Chris de Burgh had morphed into Leonard Cohen. L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival OperaNow Fuchs springs her own directorial trap. The broken feast gives way to the hospital corridors where Euridice lies on a gurney flanked by staff in scrubs under pitiless white light (pictured above). If this conceit aims to channel our Covid-era dreads of sudden bereavement, all memories of medical soap-operas prove sadly impossible to banish. Meanwhile, the instrumental textures of La Serenissima powerfully darken. Monteverdi’s spine-tingling evocations of the lower realms are driven by splendidly shady cornetts and sackbuts. 

Hope, however, still flickers. With “Ecco l’altra palude”, Siân Cameron’s mezzo lends a warm authority to Orfeo’s guide towards Hades, La Speranza. When not cleaning medical kit on the wards, Freddie Tong’s formidable, granitic bass-baritone Caronte serves as impressive gate-keeper to the underworld. Orfeo’s plea to Caronte to cross the border from the land of the living emerged, as often, as the emotional pinnacle of the entire piece. In “Possente spirto” and later exchanges with Tong, Gijsbertsen invests the heartbroken roulades of a super-demanding vocal part with emotional authenticity as well as technical virtuosity. It's all a far cry from his glib balladeer at the opera’s outset. La Serenissima enrich the sumptuous gloom with fine string ritornellos – plus plangent commentary from Lynda Sayce’s theorbo, and Oliver Wass’s harp. But does Orfeo really need to chloroform Caronte? A little too much Casualty, maybe. L'Orfeo, Longborough Festival OperaAfter the black-clad conga line of the infernal spirits, and the interval, the Underworld – bathed in the dramatic shades of Tim Mitchell’s lighting design – turned out to mimic the wedding above. We descend from genteel party marquee to Goth-tinged basement nightclub. Gregory’s sensitive, persuasive Proserpina and Julien Ségol’s resonant, if tetchy, Plutone spar over Orfeo’s fate, as a Picasso-like weeping-eye motif oversees events (pictured above). The distraught singer’s lonely quest among the shades sees Gijsbertsen double down on soulfulness, while the pair’s reunion allows Aoife Miskelly’s affecting and assured Euridice her all-too-brief spell in the Stygian limelight. But it’s Orfeo whose sorrow will steal the show after he fatally looks back. So Hades reclaims his spouse, and in “Questi i campi di Tracia”, Gijsbertsen delivers a nuanced monologue of misery that makes the melismatic span and swoop of Monteverdi’s writing lucid and credible. After this full-spectrum suffering, the deus ex machina intervention of Seumas Begg’s radiant-voiced Apollo can only come as an anticlimax – true in all versions, not just this one. The couple's apotheosis feels like a downbeat conclusion, its tone stunned and subdued. 

The jubilant moresca dance that closes L’Orfeo may survive from the earlier, harsher finale preserved in one libretto. That would make sense. In any case, here it showcases Howarth’s always zestful and alert rhythmic drive, along with the unobtrusively fluent movement direction by Clare Whistler. Dance and song alone unite this world with the one below, in overlapping rings of love and loss. 

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters