We do not know how Claudio Monterverdi's first audience for his opera Orfeo behaved, crowded into one of the many rooms of the grand ducal palace in Mantua, northern Italy. But we do know that 415 years on, the work considered to be the first out-and-out opera can still amaze and delight.
At Garsington Opera, a new production of this masterpiece, opening the 2022 season and directed by John Caird, is so ravishingly beautiful and so freshly, cheerfully staged that the whole opera feels newly minted. It's certainly no period piece, with its unstructured white and cream linen separates and tea-dressses, exuberant dancing and glowing young cast.
Ed Lyon in the title role and the company of Orfeo. Photo: Julian Guidera
The opera opens in an Arcadian glade with cooling fronds tumbling through a giant wedding ring of light. Orfeo – Orpheus, the god of music – has found in Euridice the love that changes his laments into songs of joy. They marry to universal rejoicing, and Orfeo celebrates his good fortune as Euridice trips off to the meadow to make a garland.
At Garsington, early scenes such as these unfold with full daylight pouring into the auditorium from the gardens outside the transparent side walls of the summer opera house. And so it is with dread that the audience sees approaching across the grass, in clear distress, Euridice's companion. Euridice is dead, bitten by a snake.
Across the centuries the universally recognised shock of contentment and routine turned to grief in an instant is powerfully and heartrendingly articulated in both the music and visible despair.
The English Concert on stage in Orfeo. Photo: Julian Guidera
Orfeo defies gatekeeper Charon and sings his way into the Underworld to retrieve Euridice, entering her glossy black new home and, with the help of Pluto's queen Persephone, leading his wife back to the light. But human frailty intervenes....
As Bill Bankes-Jones observes in his interesting programme essay, in Mantua both audience and performers would have numbered around 40, several players taking up more than one instrument. In this outstanding 2022 production, every member of the company dances and moves with the music (life-enhancing choreography by Arielle Smith). The dynamic and barefoot English Concert is on stage, its players in the heart of the action. Laurence Cummings directing this pulsating score from the keyboard even sings as Orfeo's father in the closing moments.
The result of this extraordinary collaboration and combining of the talents is a production of such directness and intimacy that for all its individual stars, and there are many, this Orfeo is a single, intricately-constructed organism, music's answer to the coral reef.
Lauren Joyanne Morris as Persephone and Ossian Huskinson as Pluto reign in the Underworld. Photo: Julian Guidera
Tenor Ed Lyon delights as Orfeo, singing, dancing and exuding the infectious joy that bubbles from the stage, until the hammer blow of grief. It is hard to imagine that we shall witness a more heart-felt or accomplished performance vocally or dramatically this year. Australian soprano Zoe Drummond is his charming, sweet-voiced Euridice.
Bass-baritone Ossian Huskinson, who made a big impression last year in Garsington’s 2021 revival of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, sings Pluto, king of the underworld, regally joined by Lauren Joyanne Morris as Persephone, and mezzo-soprano Diana Montague is a sage presence in this youthful utopia.
From the magical moment when the familiar fanfare of the Toccata is played across the gardens before the show, to the joyful finale and madrigal coda, Garsington's Orfeo is a breathtaking triumph. The audience is invited to complement the creamy look of the Robert Jones's design in their own choice of evening wear. It was a privilege on first night to be connected to this production even in this minor way.
Look out your cream linen and book now, while there are still seats available.
Orfeo is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 3, 9, 11, 15, 23, 25 June and 3 July
|What||Orfeo, Garsington Opera review|
|Where||Garsington Opera, Wormsley Estate , Stokenchurch, HP14 3YG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Marylebone (underground)|
01 Jun 22 – 03 Jul 22, Eight performances, with long dinner interval
|Price||£185-£210 (includes voluntary £70 donation)|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|