Friday, 6 November 2015

Luigi Rossi's Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Luigi Rossi Orpheus; Mary Bevan, Caitlin Hulcup, Louise Alder, Sky Igram, Keri Fuge, Philip Smith, Graeme Broadbent, Mark Milhofer, Verena Gunz, dir: Keith Warner, cond: Christian Curnyn; Royal Opera House at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 4 2015
Star rating: 4.0

The first opera written for Paris, in a lively and intelligent new production in the Jacobean theatre at the Globe.

Luigi Rossi was a contemporary of Cavalli; Neapolitan trained he was based in Rome but politics meant that he found himself in Paris. There, under the patronage of Cardinal Mazarin, Rossi composed the first opera written specifically for Paris, Orfeo (Orpheus). The Royal Opera House hit upon Rossi's Orpheus for its second production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where we caught the performance on Wednesday 4 November 2015. Directed by Keith Warner, designed by Nicky Shaw, with choreography by Karl Alfred Schreiner, the opera was sung in Christopher Cowell's English translation. Mary Bevan was Orpheus, Louise Alder was Eurydice, Caitlin Hulcup was Aristeus, Sky Ingram was Venus, Keri Fuge was Cupid, Verena Gunz was Aegea with Graeme Broadbent, Mark Milhofer, Lauren Fagan, Jennifer Davies and Emily Edmonds. Christian Curnyn directed the orchestra of Early Opera Company.

Mary Bevan - Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan - Orpheus
© 2015 ROH.
Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Written to an Italian libretto (by Francesco Buti) for a French audience, Rossi's opera mixed Roman and Venetian elements with items calculated to appeal to French taste. So that the structure was the typical Cavalli-esque one of a classical mythological story variegated with a selection of comic scenes generally involving servants, and a large cast including a man in drag. But added to this were a large number of ensembles and choruses, many opportunities for dance and spectacular transformations. You could see how French opera might develop from such a model.

Librettist Francesco Buti had kept the basic story of Orpheus (Mary Bevan) and Eurydice (Louise Alder) but surrounded them with additional layers. Eurydice acquired another suitor Aristeus (Caitlin Hulcup), a Father (Philip Smith) and a comic nurse (Verena Gunz). Whilst Aristeus had his comic sidekick Satyr (Graeme Broadbent). When thwarted in his love for Eurydice, Aristeus called upon Venus (Sky Ingram) who appeared with Cupid (Keri Fuge) and the three Graces (Lauren Fagan, Jennifer Davis, Emily Edmonds). Venus actively involved herself because of a dispute amongst the Gods.

In Act Two Venus disguised herself as an old woman, Alkippe (Mark Milhofer). When thwarted herself, Venus sets the trap for Eurydice with the snake which kills her. In the final act many of the cast played different role, adding to the layers of confusion. Orpheus consulted the Fates, Eurydice's ghost haunted Aristeus and drove him mad, in addition to the familiar rescue of Eurydice from Hades by Orpheus. Though the crucial moment happened here during a dance! The final attack on Orpheus by the Maenads is stopped by Jove.

Sky Ingram - Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Sky Ingram as Venus © 2015 ROH.
Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Chris Cowell's lively English translation rendered some of the text in colloquialisms which made the scenes with Venus comic also. It is clear that the opera intended some by play between Venus and Cupid, but I unclear whether Warner and Cowell had made the opera more comic than Rossi and Buti intended.

The production was set roughly in the period of composition, but costumes were English not French. The humans were dressed as early 17th century English, but the Gods dressed with far more fantasy. I detected hints of an iconographical scheme in the costumes for the Gods, but cannot be certain.

As can be seen, there was a lot of action and a lot of characters (some 21 in all) and quite simply it was impossible to follow without reading the plot before hand. I spent the whole of Act One unclear whom Graeme Broadbent's character was and D. spent much of the opera unaware that Alkippe was Venus in disguise.

That said, Keith Warner's production made wonderful use of the whole space of the theatre. It was visually thrilling stuff without ever using any glitzy tricks, just good stagecraft. We had people appearing from the ceiling, disappearing into the floor, appearing out of tables, and an earthquake to conclude Act One, as well as a full physical use of the whole theatre space. Vivid and engrossing stuff, you never felt that Keith Warner was trying to keep you entertained (as can happen in Baroque opera) the visual action came out of the drama.

Mary Bevan, Louise Alder - Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Mary Bevan, Louise Alder as Orpheus & Eurydice
© 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Despite my reservations on the work's comic tone, Keith Warner carefully kept the serious bits serious. Mary Bevan and Louise Alder were beautifully matched as Orpheus and Eurydice, with a glorious love scene. Louise Alder was profoundly unnerving as Eurydice's ghost leading to the dramatic tour de force as Caitlin Hulcup's Aristeus went mad. Finally Mary Bevan was heartwrenching in her final lament, longing for death.

In the comic scenes, Sky Ingram as Venus was the clear winner. With a mane of red hair and long legs, she was the visual image of a screen goddess and vamped it up something rotten. Keri Fuge was a lively delight as the resolutely independent Cupid. Lauren Fagan, Jennifer Davis and Emily Edmonds formed a delightful Andrews Sister-like trio of Graces only to reappear as Fates and as Maenads too.

Caitlin Hulcup - Luigi Rossi - Orpheus © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Caitlin Hulcup as Aristeus © 2015 ROH.
Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Graeme Broadbent had great fun as the leather clad comic Satyr, and then put his black voice to superb use as Pluto. Verena Gunz was a relatively serious nurse, Aegea, and could have been broader. Why she did a quasi striptease I don't know. Mark Milhofer started out as Momus, the god of gossip, before transforming into a highly comic Alkippe (Venus in disguise). The then reappeared as Jove (dressed as King Charles I) to create the lieto fine.

In the balcony above the stage Christian Curnyn directed with aplomb, playing both harpsichord and organ, as well as cueing singers. The small orchestra had a nice veriety of instruments, violins, viola, lirorne, basss violin, lute, guitar and baroque harp. Together and individually they produced some lovely textures and gave a poised and lively account of the score.

There were some lovely moments in the opera, and musically Luigi Rossi created some beautiful profundity. But the comic business rather over balanced the piece and ultimately it seemed over long (Act 1: 45 mins, Act 2: 55 mins, Act 3: 60 mins). We could have lost some of the comic by-play to great benefit. But just when you thought the piiece was going to run out of steam, Caitlin Hulcup produced her superb mad scene as Aristeus, or Mary Bevan stopped hearts with Orpheus's lament.

Keith Warner drew a superb ensemble performance from his young cast in an intelligent production which was rumbustious without sending the piece up


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