Monday 13 November 2017

Illuminating the text: predominantly youthful cast in BREMF's staging of Monteverdi's first opera

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Monteverdi L'Orfeo; Rory Carver, Helen Charlston, Jenni Harper, Richard Moore, Andrew Robinson, dir: Thomas Guthrie, musical dir: Deborah Roberts, Oliver Webber; Brighton Early Music Festival at The Old Market
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Npv 11 2017 Star rating: 4.5
An outstanding performance in the title role illuminates this intimate production of Monteverdi's masterpiece

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Rory Carver - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Rory Carver - BREMF (Photo Robert Piwko)
Having staged one of opera's important pre-cursors, the 1589 Florentine Intermedi, a few years ago Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has turned its attention to the first great opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, as part of the 2017 festival's exploration of classical music's root.

Thomas Guthrie staged the work at Hove's The Old Market (we caught the second of three performances on Saturday 11 November 2017) with Deborah Roberts and Oliver Webber as joint musical directors. Rory Carver was Orfeo with an ensemble of eight singers sharing the other roles, Jenni Harper, Helen Charlston, Benedict Hymas, Dominic Bevan, Richard Moore, Andrew Robinson, Victoria Adams and Emily Burn. Instrumental support was provided by the Monteverdi String Band (leader Oliver Webber), the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Aileen Henry (harp), James Bramley (chitarrone) and Claire Williams (harpsichord, organ, regal).

This was a relatively small scale production, a welcome opportunity to experience the work on the sort of intimate scale that reflected the work's origins as a courtly entertainment. But Thomas Guthrie's setting was anything but courtly, as he took his inspiration from 1960s Mods and the film Quadrophenia. The anonymous designer had done a good job creating some very strong period looks for cast and chorus, Rory Carver's suit was particularly sharp, and both Jenni Harper and Helen Charlston had strikingly differentiated costumes for their various characters.

Bar a few suspended trees, there was no set but some very effective lighting. For much of the time Guthrie used his chorus as backstop, the noise of movement in the Act One party scene was however somewhat distracting, whilst in the Hades acts I worried about the lack of synchronicity between the choristers ceremoniously carrying candles. Having the cast twist/jive to the dances was a mistake, it looked embarrassing and elicited titters from the audience.

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Helen Charlston, Dominic Bevan, Rory Carver - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Helen Charlston, Dominic Bevan, Rory Carver
BREMF (Photo Robert Piwko)
The effect of the staging was to place a strong focus on the singers, the majority of whom were young (Rory Carver is still studying at the Royal College of Music). All concerned were impressive in their ability to convince us that they knew what they were singing about (the opera was performed in Italian). A truism perhaps, but it is important given the predominance of recitative in Monteverdi's operas. For all the singers, the text was clearly important both clarity of diction and using it to colour the music.

Rory Carver was Orfeo, and his account of 'Possente Spirto' made my spine tingle in a way which has not happened for a long time. Technically adept, his way with the ornamentation was nicely naturalistic, but it was the way he created a strong sense of Orfeo's presence and the young man's intense journey. Orfeo is a huge role, and that Carver sang it so well and held us so spellbound is a great credit and I look forward to seeing far more of him.

Both Jenni Harper and Helen Charlston created a series of nicely differentiated characters. Harper was an unusual La Musica, poised contained and deliberately rather sexy,, whilst her La Speranza was intense and a little desperate, keen to leave the gates of Hades. Euridice is trickier and frankly Monteverdi and his librettist Striggio seem less interested in her (I rather miss the final intense dialogue between Orpheus and Euridice in Gluck's version), but Harper was poised and elegant. Helen Charleston's La Messagera was searing, this is a gift of a role and Charlston did not disappoint. In complete contrast her Proserpina was poised and sexy.

Benedict Hymas impressed greatly singing Pastore ! and one of spirits in Hades, personable and stylish, he then dazzled us with his account of Apollo's final aria and duet with Orfeo. Dominic Bevan provided strong support as Pastore 2, a spirit in Hades and Eco whilst Victoria Adams brought great strength of personality to Pastore 3. It is perhaps tricky casting a young singer as Caronte, bass voices can be notoriously slow to develop. Richard Moore had all the notes, but as yet not quite the resonance, instead he gave us great commitment and admirable firmness of purpose. (His outfit, leather jacket jeans, red-handkerchief in rear right-hand pocket, seemed to reference gay stereotypes which were not developed).

Andrew Robinson, sporting a dashing pork-pie hat (a la Madness) was perhaps less fierce than usual as Plutone, but impressive nonetheless and contributed firm support as Pastore 4 and a spirit in Hades. Emily Burn made a demure Ninfa.

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Benedict Hymas, Rory Carver - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
Monteverdi: L'Orfeo - Benedict Hymas, Rory Carver - Brighton Early Music Festival (Photo Robert Piwko)
These soloists were supplemented with a nine-person non-professional chorus, who rose admirably to the demands the staging made of them. The instrumental playing also reflected the intimacy of the performance, there were few moments as grand as the opening toccata, played on-stage by members of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, but the opera was full of discreet virtuosity and some lovely instrumental timbres.

Occasional corners of the staging revealed, perhaps, the time limits of rehearsals but overall this was a fine ensemble account of this great opera. The whole cast illuminated Striggio's text and Monteverdi's music but it was Rory Carver's performance that really stays in the memory.

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