Monday 30 September 2013

Fresh and original: L'Orfeo at the Barbican

John Mark Ainsley at Orfeo at the Barbican Centre, with Academy of Ancient Music
John Mark Ainsley at Orfeo at the Barbican Centre
On Saturday 28th September I enjoyed a performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in the Barbican Hall. The Academy of Ancient Music was led by Richard Egarr from his harpsichord with John Mark Ainsley as Orfeo. It was a semi-staged performance directed by Orpha Phelan.

With a composer whose music has been around for 400 years most of us are familiar something of his output and with Monteverdi there is a wide range. It was this familiarity that this performance was building on. The cast were in costume, dressed as contemporary wedding guests. Although in the discussion afterwards Orpha suggested that they had provided their own clothes they must have had some guidance or they had all been at the same wedding as they were quite co-ordinated. It helped to create the feeling that you vaguely knew them or people similar. We know the type of wedding depicted and that in turn leads us to the emotions of the piece. This is L'Orfeo and the opera concentrates on him and his emotions. Uncertainty, loss and then grief. Things we can all relate to in 2013 or 1613 it doesn't matter and that shows the continued relevance of Monteverdi's music.

The performance started even before we took our seats as the chorus and some of the smaller characters mingled with the audience in the bar before bursting into the auditorium as a rowdy & slightly drunken wedding party. The orchestra was already in place some of them wearing dark glasses (they were removed to read the scores!) The fun was starting. Then Daniela Lehner came on as La Musica dressed as a jazz era cabaret singer complete with a period microphone and stand. The two theorbos appeared black & white which apart from looking lovely linked in very nicely.

The orchestra was small & interesting, grouped in the centre of the stage. There were three harpsichords, two small organs and a regal. Richard Egarr was on one harpsichord while Alastair Ross played another and one of the organs. Jan Waterfield played the other harpsichord and organ in addition to the regal. In addition to the theorbos, the string section included two violins & pochettes, a tenor violin, one viola, two viola da gambas and one each of a cello and violine. Siobhan Armstrong was playing a baroque harp. We also had two players each on recorders, trumpets, cornetts and sackbuts; three players doubled on sackbuts and trumpets, plus had Benedict Hoffnung on Timpani and Percussion. The orchestra too provided an air of familiarity with many of the players being familiar faces.

When the chorus first came into the auditorium they lingered at the side of the stage before passing either side of the orchestra, passing waiters as they did so. Then the action started on the raised stage at the back. Euridice was hardly visible in the entrance at the back dressed casually in white trousers and top in complete contrast to everyone else in their wedding finery. At the Q&A afterwards, John Mark Ainsley suggested that her hesitancy was understandable, waiting for your wedding can make even the strongest love waiver, but then it was suggested that she had killed herself by hanging. Here we had some small oddities. The waiters joined the family in the church for the wedding and slightly distracting passing chairs among the group to form the rows of pews.

Act 3 is marked by Daniela Lehner now the nurse Speranza wheeling the waiter's table from the side to the the front of the stage where it becomes a large pathologist's table where Euridice is lain. Paul Gerimon plays Caronte as the pathologist and is hauntingly accompanied by the regal. Orfeo can not accept that Euridice is dead & lays with her on the table/bed & when they leave the sheets are all crumpled as though it was the wedding bed.

We are now with the family waiting in the background and Orfeo losing himself in a drunken rage at the front of the stage. Prosperina played by Katherine Manley persuades Dawid Kimberg as Plutone to help Orfeo find relief. Plutone entices Orfeo with a bottle and leads him to the family at the back. Here Orfeo has the realisation that Euridice really is dead. The lights become bright like lightening and all is clear. The chairs are now all in a row along which he walks above everything.

The lighting had been very clever and set the scene superbly all the way through. During the torment scenes the light had been shades of blues & greens cast tightly against the walls playing against the textures of the panelling suggesting the underworld. I gather that the uncredited lighting designer was a member of the Barbican house team. I hope they now know how well they did.

Thomas Hobbs played Apollo & Pastore. He was the person most in costume as a Mafia godfather type. Orpha had said that she was using the family to gain this familiarity with Orfeo's suffering but I didn't feel that it needed to be so obvious. The elements played on a lower level reminded us more.

There were lots of familiar singers and players on stage. Even Malcolm Greenhalgh tending the harpsichords became a familiar Uncle. In all a wonderful performance especially given that they had only had eight days of rehearsals. John Mark Ainsley has performed the roll five times initially on the Decca recording even before doing the role on stage (with Philip Picket and Richard Egarr was on harpsichord & organ). Despite all the previous experience he still made it appear fresh and provided a new aspect to it. Sophie Bevan really has the shortest of parts & such a pity.
Guest Posting: David Hughes

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