I do love The Week! The perfect combination of news, illuminating comment (not just from our little sceptered isle but from around the world), reviews – and humour. Not always as biting or as potentially offensive as Charlie Hebdo, but none the less telling. For example, from last week’s It Must Be True… I read it in the tabloids:
‘Islamic extremists hoping to disrupt travel across the Western World hacked instead into a website that published the bus timetables for the Bristol area. Commuters who visited the TravelWest website after Christmas were confronted with a black screen covered in Arab text and playing Arab music. A banner informed them that the website had been taken over by DarkShadow, a group that is believed to work out of Ivory Coast and Tunisia. The cyber terrorists are presumed to have thought they were hacking into a website that promoted international travel in the west – not the bus routes in the West Country. The Travel West website was still out of operation this week.’
And right up there among my favourite things along with The Week – although in a somewhat different vein – is Monteverdi. So I was delighted when I discovered that the Royal Opera House was breaking out from Covent Garden to stage Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo just down the road at the Roundhouse.
(For those who do not know, The Roundhouse is just that – a large circular brick building on the road from Camden to Hampstead created in the 1840s to house and repair the trains using Euston Station. Engine development meant that it was already redundant by the 1860s, when it was taken over by Gilbey’s to use as a bonded warehouse for liquor. It continued to house gin for the next 90 years until the 1960s when it started its life as an arts venue and, after various ups and downs, continues as such today.)
Sadly, I cannot encourage you all to go to see Orfeo as its very limited run is now sold out – so I will have a little rave so that if ever you get the chance to go in the future, you will grab it.
Early 17th century Baroque music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those like it, Orfeo has to be right up there. The bell-like clarity, the purity, simplicity and melodic flow, the emotional intensity of the music is heart stopping – especially when played on throaty baroque trumpets and tinkling long necked ‘lutes’.
The story is, of course, a knock out. Orfeo, a fine player himself on the lyre, weds his beloved Eurydice only for her to get bitten by a deadly snake. Death and descent to the dark realms of Hades, ruled by the god Pluto and his wife Persephone, are inevitable for Eurydice but Orfeo is having none of it. Against the advice of his betters, he descend to Hades where no living soul may go, and by the charm of his playing persuades Persephone to persuade Pluto to let Eurydice return ‘to the sun’ – but on one condition. That Orfeo leads her out from Hades without once ever looking back to see whether or not she is following. If he does look back, all is lost and she will be swallowed up once more by the shades of the afterworld. But, can he do it?
Well, no….. For all kinds of understandable reasons (if you are interested there was a fascinating piece in the Guardian by the translator, Don Paterson) – he does look back. Eurydice is lost – and Monteverdi excels himself in one of the most tragic arias in the canon of operatic tragic arias.
And the cast did Monteverdi proud – from principles to the smallest parts they sang some fiendishly difficult music stunningly beautifully and movingly, supported admirably by the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company under Christopher Moulds. So, what not to enjoy? Well, sadly, quite a few things….
For starters – and completely out of character – the ROH chose to sing Orfeo in English. I do not, sadly, speak Italian but I do know that operas written to be sung in Italian simply do not work in any other language – especially one so far from Italian in terms of rhythm and colouration as English! What on earth possessed them? They always perform operas in their original language so why, of all operas, translate Orfeo? Especially when they had already installed screens for subtitles in the Roundhouse so there would be no problem in the audience following the story.
And then the production….. I am a great admirer of both Michael Boyd (the director) and Tom Piper (the set designer) but, as happens all too often in opera productions, far from enhancing the drama for most of the opera the production merely got in the way.
There was, I am sure, some subtle thinking behind dressing Pluto’s henchmen in ill fitting black suits and ties which made them look like down at heel funeral directors. And no doubt the same subtle thinking costumed Pluto and Persephone for an early show of Britain’s Got Talent – and dressed Eurydice’s childhood friend in a dumpy pink taffeta ‘mother of the bride’ suit, pink silk court shoes and a pink silk pill box hat!
And while the great troupe of youth community dancers did fine job as tortured souls rolling around in Hades, having one of them apparently suffering an epileptic fit and banging her feet loudly on the stage all through one of Orfeo’s most touching laments would have been bizarre and it not been so infuriating!
Still the noose which descended to swing first Eurydice and then Orfeo rather pointlessly round the stage, did finally come into its own in a dramatic last moment which, since you are unlikely to actually see it for yourselves, I can reveal to you… Although the illusion might have been more convincing if Eurydice had not had to climb onto a rather nasty green canteen chair in order to try to reach her beloved as he disappeared into the sky!
Hey Ho – you cannot have it all – and the music was divine!