Luigi Rossi: Orpheus
The Royal Opera, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn.
Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 23 October 2015
Luigi Rossi is not a familiar name amongst opera goers but, on the strength of this performance of his opera Orpheus, he deserves to be. This is the last in the Royal Opera House series of five productions based on the Orpheus myth, starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (review here) and reaching a climax with Gluck’s version, reduced to just three characters (review here)
Composed in 1647 (to a libretto by fellow Italian Francesco Buti), Rossi’s Orpheus is generally acknowledged to be the first opera specifically commissioned for France – one outcome of the appointment of an Italian Cardinal as the Prime Minister to Queen Anne of Austria, the Regent to the young Louis XIV, and his attempts to introduce Italian culture to the French Court. Buti’s libretto is a curious affair, adding a bewildering array of miscellaneous characters to the story together with extended dance sequences and complex stage machinery and special effects – all making it difficult to stage. The Royal Opera made things more complicated for themselves by using the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, one of the most intimate of London’s stages.
Amongst the additional characters are Aristeus (a rival lover of Eurydice), Aegea (Eurydice’s nurse/confidant), Venus and her unruly son Cupid, Jupiter, Bacchus, a comedy pair of a Styr and Momus, and the Three Graces. Reduced to half its original six hour length, Keith Warner’s production manages to keep the complexity and razzmatazz of what must have been an extraordinary original show whilst still making it very presentable to a modern non-specialist audience – who were frequently involved in the action. It was sensibly sung in English to a clever translation by Christopher Cowell that included many up-dated references and such delights at a vampishly leggy Venus yelling at her wayward son Cupid “Come here you little Bastard – I’ll tear your sodding wings off” – and, later, telling him to “bugger off!”.
That this was not your normal opera was apparent from the start, with the opening musical numbers being a Trio and Quartet. Such consort numbers were a feature throughout. The first two acts were rather hectic, not least because each of the characters had their turn on top of the basic story of Eurydice’s death and Orpheus’s quest. But the mood changed in the third act, not least because the emotional high point came, not with Eurydice and Orpheus, but with an expansive mad scene for Aristeus, sung with extraordinary conviction by Caitlin Hulcup. The principal roles were sung by Siobhan Stagg as Orpheus (singing from the gallery while the throat-infected Mary Bevan acting the part on the stage below) and Louise Alder as Eurydice. Another excellent portrayal, both vocally and in acting terms was Keri Fuge as Cupid, with her endless winding-up of Sky Ingram’s seductive Venus. Mark Milhofer excelled in the triple roles of Momus/Alkippe/Jove, as did Philip Smith as Endymion/Charon. The Three Graces were cleverly acted and sung by Lauren Fagan, Jennifer Davis and Emily Edmonds. It is worth noting that seven of the singers were making their Royal Opera debut, including three Jette Parker Young Artists.
As with The Royal Opera’s previous Wannamaker production (L’Ormindo) and the first of their Orfeo setting (Monteverdi at The Roundhouse), the orchestra was Christian Curnyn’s excellent Early Opera Company orchestra. There were notable individual contributions from violinist Bojan Čičič, theorbo and guitar player Elizabeth Jenny and Emilia Benjamin playing the gorgeously sensuous sounding (and shaped) lirone. Christian Curnyn’s direction was, as ever, exemplary, not least in building trust with the singers who. throughout. were singing with the director and orchestra behind them. It must have been a salutary experience for them, singing to an audience sitting just a few feet away.