Thursday 5 March 2015

Review of Reviews - L'Orfeo at the Roundhouse

Gyula Orendt & Mary Bevan ©ROH 2015. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Gyula Orendt & Mary Bevan ©ROH 2015.
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
The Royal Opera's new production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was its first collaboration with the Roundhouse, Michael Boyd ventured his first opera production, the Early Opera Company was in the pit conducted by Christopher Moulds, there was a strong cast and with a chorus made up of singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and young dancers from East London Dance. Gyula Orendt sang Orfeo, with Mary Bevan as Euridice and La Musica, Susan Bickley as Silvia/Messagiera, Anthony Gregory, Alexander Sprague and Christopher Lowrey as pastores (here called pastors), James Platt as Charon, Rachel Kelly as Proserpina, Callum Thorpe as Plutone and Susanna Hurrell as a Nymph. Broadly welcomed by reviewers, each had a rather different take on Boyd's production and look at the various reactions, a review of the reviews looking at reaction in The Independent, The Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian, The Evening Standard, The Financial Times,,,,

The space meant that amplification was essential but we did not find it intrusive. I found the result vividly theatrical (see my original review), with some superb performances, and the use of the dancers was sometimes intrusive. I objected to Boyd re-writing the story with the pastoral element removed and replaced by religion (Pastores to Pastors). The finest moments were spine-tingling, such as the final tableau with Gyula Orendt's Orfeo suspended above Mary Bevan's Eurydice, never quite reaching her. Not everyone agreed, and reviewers seem to have had some fascinating differences of opinion. The staging particularly comes in for a lot of comment, and Boyd's ideas do not seem to have worked for everyone, but most agreed on the fineness of the musical performance. In this article we look at what other reviewers said.

In The Independent Michael Church commented on the irony of the Royal Opera bringing opera to the 'erstwhile temple to psychedelic rock', and noted plenty of other firsts too from Michael Boyd's operatic debut to the use of East London Dance. Church felt that for the first two acts there was no dramatic connection between dancers and singers, things only gelled in the third. But when they did, there was superb Monteverdian magic and fine singing with Susan Bickley's messenger chilling the spine. As Orfeo, Gyula Orendt was expressive musically and dramatically, with his grief at the end feeling overwhelming. Though Church did feel that the final tableau took away from Orendt's performance.

Writing in The Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen thought the cast outstanding but the production too relentlessly sombre and he wished the staging had caught some of the music's radiance. Boyd's production missed essential contrasts of dark and light, heaven and earth, as well as being weirdly determined to avoid any association of Orfeo with the art of music. But Orendt sang most eloquently, threading beautiful melisma through Possente spirto and entering whole-heartedly into the drama.

Fiona Maddocks in The Observer felt the production ended terrifyingly, with Orfeo dangling from a dodgy harness. The enterprise was a risky and enterprising, a novel way to try out baroque opera and a lively follow-up to the Royal Opera’s excursion last year to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for Cavalli’s L’Ormindo; only a stickler could object to the amplification. She too thought the first half weaker, describing it as frustrating, when all seemed somewhat haphazard. Mary Bevan made an ideal Eurydice and Gyula Orendt was compelling in the title role, elevating the entire enterprise to a special and memorable level.

Andrew Clements in The Guardian thought there was a tingling directness to it which made it compelling especially in the third act. And Gyula Orendt's account of Possente Spirto was the opera's climax, and sung with mounting, almost desperate fervour, so that everything human about the drama was suddenly engaged and from then on Boyd's production never faltered.

But for Barry Millington, writing in the Evening Standard, the production lacked true directorial input, leaving the singers to express emotions largely through the music. Gyula Orendt and Mary Bevan led with cast impeccably, with Susan Bickley an implacable Messenger.

Like many others, Laura Battle in The Financial Times thought that in the first half the drama was unfocussed, but that things improved in the second half with the dancers and singers coming into their own. Mary Bevan and Gyula Orendt were well-matched both vocally and dramatically. Bevan’s soprano, small-scale but beautifully expressive, while Orendt, a baritone, brought heartfelt emotion and shading to a role often sung by a tenor. Overall there was much to enjoy on stage, but it was the band that gave this production its oomph.

David Karlin on commented 'The more opera I review, the less likely it becomes that I'm going to see a totally new approach. And I certainly wouldn't have expected one from the oldest work in the repertoire: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, four centuries old and counting. But a new approach was exactly what I saw last night in the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Roundhouse.' He also thought that the amplification worked without a single adverse effect.

Over on David Nice described it as an austerely beautiful retelling of mythic Orpheus's grief and trials, with sounds to match. Nice liked the closeness with Gyula Orendt’s Orfeo or Susan Bickley’s Silvia acting so intensely with their voices on the ramp only feet away. Nice thought the core of Orendt's performance was his final plea after he has lost Eurydice, which Boyd capped by an unforgettable tableau in a visual context which will linger in the mind’s eye, as the sounds will in the ear, for a very long time.

On Claire Seymour thought that Boyd's evocation of Elysium depressingly prosaic, but admitted that complex staging would would further hinder the singers’ projection and communication. She found the dancing sometimes at odds with the musical discourse, but found them talented and wonderfully expressive at other times. She thought the singers uniformly excellent, fittingly so in the absence of more than rudimentary stage action. The final image of the anguished Orfeo, suspended between heaven and earth, was striking and moving. But the human and spiritual love which is embodied in Monteverdi’s score had been overshadowed by the visual and the physical.

Laura Peatman on though the production stripped the work back, in a stark production which let the score shine with the orchestra performing bewitchingly. The casting was strong and supportive of younger performers. But much of the production remained on one level, and while there were occasional flashes of excited energy, overall it was a plateau lacking the necessary peaks and troughs of emotion. Consequently, the big moments were disappointingly underwhelming. The design, too, was not as bold as you would hope for: it seemed as if everyone is for some reason holding back.

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