Proms: Monteverdi Orfeo

Proms: Monteverdi Orfeo
Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists
Royal Albert Hall. 4 August 2015

The 2015 Proms run until September 12For the second time this year, London sees Monteverdi’s Orfeo performed in a large circular space. After the Royal Opera House / Early Opera Company production in the Roundhouse early this year (review here) we now had the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall in front of a packed audience of well over 5000 people.

For a work that was probably first performed in a space that in its entirety (including performers and audience) would have fitted onto the front part of the RAH stage, there are obvious issues of presentation. For this rather more than semi-staged performance, John Eliot Gardiner placed his 32 instrumentalist right and left of a central triangular area, the continuo group divided between the two sides with harpsichords and organ at the front of the two sides and pairs of chittarones on either side. The strings were to the left, the woodwind to the right, with the cornetts/trumpets and sackbuts on the top of the stage steps, just below the bust of Sir Henry Wood. The soloists were drawn from the 4o-strong choir, which tumbled onto the stage during the Toccata led by a jovial chap who looked as though he had been given a frame drum for Christmas, but hadn’t got round to reading the instruction manual, consequently beating it mercilessly with his fist. The youthful chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds (men in casual black, women in bright block colours) bounced around to the merciless thump of the drum and rattle of a tambourine. The two very professional-looking dancers who took over the front stage turned out to be the key soloists Mariana Flores and Francesca Aspromonte (Eurydice and Musica who, in a nice twist, also sang the role of the Messenger).

The work was run straight through, with only a brief tuning break after Act 2, lasting for just over two hours. That was a brave move (not least because of the relaxed pace taken for much of the piece) and it worked, allowing the evolving emotions of the story to develop uninterrupted. The steady pace was one of the keys to the success of this powerful performance – there were several moments of near stasis, such as during the Sinfonia after the Messenger takes herself off to her lonely cavern. Volumes were also frequently subdued, a notable feature of Musica’s Prologue when the outstanding Francesca Aspromonte accompanies herself on a guitar, even ending her last verse with a delicately spoken Shh!

The key soloists were wearing head microphones, presumably for the purposes of the live BBC Radio 3 broadcast as they moved around the stage (and auditorium) – there was no evidence of any amplification. Although not at all apparent from the radio broadcast, the Messenger first appeared right at the back of the arena, slowly walking through the Prommers with a chitterone for musical company. Other uses of the space included the Echo coming from the high in the rear balcony. The extraordinary Act 3 exchanges between Orpheus with Hope and Charon was timed beautifully, notably in the opening verses of Orfeus’s famous Possente spirto with its interludes successively from pairs of violins and cornetts (the ‘echoes’ not sounding as such) and a double harp duetting with itself over a single organ note in a moment of suspended time during A lei volt’ho.

Charon eventually falls asleep on one of the harpsichords, with a little plink, representing an aspect of Orfeo that I have never quite understood: the fact that Charon is not charmed by Orpheus’s musical skills into allowing him to cross the Styx, but is lulled into sleep. Orpheus enters the boat, not singing, as specified, but at least to the sound of the specified organ, with a little interlude played by Oliver-John Ruthven, as the reduced choir return all dressed in sombre black. The spot-lit figure who had been standing at the top of the side stage stairs throughout Act 3 turned out to be Prosperina. Charon turned into Pluto (who, curiously, wasn’t accompanied by the expected regal, although the Second Spirit was). Prosperina forgave her troublesome husband his abduction and deception in return for allowing Eurydice to leave Hades – with conditions. At the start of his Qual onor di te fia degno, Orpheus praises his ‘lyre’ as the two little ‘violino piccolo’ played and the chorus danced to represent the stars ‘dancing in circles’ to the sound of the lyre.

As had been pointed out during the pre-concert Proms Extra talk, the ‘lyre’ that Orpheus plays is not the generally assumed Greek-style harp, but a violini piccoli alla francese, a tiny high-pitched violin, called ‘violino piccolo’ in the programme. Incidentally, the instrument list in the programme also mentions ‘double bass’ and ‘cello’ (instruments that didn’t really exist at that time), rather than Monteverdi’s specified ‘contrabassi de viola’ and ‘basso de viola da braccio’. The difference might be subtle (and not many people would notice if they just called a normal double bass by the name of its earlier incarnation), but it does reflect a certain attitude towards correct period instruments.

Monteverdi’s score makes it clear that, just as Orpheus is beginning to doubt whether Eurydice is actually following him, there is an off-stage noise that startles him. This is normally omitted in performance, even though doing so makes nonsense of the following text ‘But what do I hear?’. On this occasion the man with the frame drum gave it one of his wallops, making Orpheus think that the Furies are about to snatch Eurydice from him. So he turns round.

The last Act is problematical as to what was actually performed at the time – there are different versions, one being Orpheus being torn to bits by wild drunken women. Here Orpheus laments his loss, with the assistance of Echo (from high in the rear gallery) before Apollo, his father, ‘descends in a cloud, singing’ or, in this case, walks down the side-stage stairs, pointing out the benefits of returning with him to heaven (which, on this occasion, appeared to be, rather appropriately, somewhere in the Grand Tier Boxes). This they do, while the Nymphs and Shepherd return in their colourful garb for a final burst of singing, dancing and clapping, including (rather bravely) jigging aound the conductor.

This performance was noteworthy for outstanding performances by singers and instrumentalists. As with the Royal Opera House Roundhouse show, we had an Eastern European Orpheus, this time with the Polish tenor Krystian Adam, the delicacy of his tone bringing a pathos to the role that can be missing. Mariana Flores was Eurydice and Hope, Francesca Aspromonte sang Music and the Messenger, Francesca Boncompagni was Persephone and Gianluca Buratto had the roles of Charon and Pluto. All were outstanding, not least for their natural Italian language skills. The remaining roles were taken by regular members of the Monteverdi Choir, Andrew Tortise, Esther Brazil, Gareth Treseder, Nicholas Mulroy, James Hall and David Shipley. For a change, vibrato was never an issue, all the voices being clear, focussed and entirely appropriate for the piece.  Amongst the instrumentalists, leader Kati Debretzeni deserves special mention for several solo passages, including a lovely one at the end of Act 2. She also shared the violini piccoli alla francese playing with Anne Schumann. Oliver-John Ruthven was the more active of the two keyboard players, on organ, harpsichord and regal.

A mention must go to Sara Mohr-Pietsch and her guests Sarah Lenton and David Vickers for their Proms Extra talk, setting the scene for the evening’s concert. If you haven’t already heard this Prom it is available via BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks or so.

[photo Chris Christodoulou]

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