Half seen Orpheus

3 Nov

I am coming to hate the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. First, it must surely be the most uncomfortable theatre in London: seats are incredibly uncomfortable and with minimal leg room and they squeeze you in. It is also really poorly located for reliable public transport which means that you have to factor in quite a lot of walking time in between performance end and trains. It’s a nice intimate theatre, but there are lots of others and I am increasingly finding the candle light something of a gimmick. Still, the ROH decided that it would build on the success of L’Ormindo last year with a performance of Luigi Rossi’s version of Orpheus. I couldn’t resist and went to the performance on 27th October.

The ROH then added insult to injury by starting the opera at 7.30 with an end time of 10.40 pm which meant that the last train test had to come into play, which it marginally failed. Was there any reason why it couldn’t have started at 7?

So what was it like? This was the first opera written for Paris. Anne of Austria and Mazarin imported Rossi, one of the leading Italian composers of his day and Francesco Buti as his librettist. To meet French taste they embellished the plot significantly. The first two acts feel like a Venetian comedy: Orpheus has a rival, Aristaeus, who enlists the help of Venus and Cupid to win Euridice for him (Did Offenbach know the opera?). Euridice is staunch, Cupid deceitful and, by the end of Act II, Venus having disguised herself as an old crone (an opportunity for a drag act by a tenor) she contrives to murder Euridice. The part of the Orpheus legend that we all know starts in Act III but only after Aristaeus has committed suicide.

It has a large cast – 23 named parts sung here by 12 singers – and it moves at a fairly leisurely pace. There are some good comic scenes, some nice cynicism from a satyr (Graeme Broadbent having huge fun), Cupid and the disguised Venus (Mark Milhofer, ditto). I thought that there was some very attractive music – that after the death of Euridice struck me as very touching indeed. But this reminds me a lot of Cavalli – sung plays, short arias without the character that he provides and with little to stir the senses musically. After two acts, it felt like a very interesting and pretty enjoyable curiosity. I’m afraid that wasn’t enough for the piece to pass the last train test and so I left then. If Act III is masterpiece, that is my loss.

The production was by Keith Warner and felt very similar to Holten’s Ormindo last year. There was another jolly translation by Christopher Cowell (joining the fashion of being careless about rhyme and assonance but amusing enough) – which was put across well by the cast. Warner’s direction allowed the acting more or less to survive the close scrutiny of an audience and it’s always a pleasure to have the singers so close. The comedy was very well done and I think that he caught the slight unevenness of the piece.

The cast was full of good young singers. Siobhan Stagg was a late replacement for Mary Bevan as Orpheus. I don’t think it was her fault that, at least for the first two acts, Orpheus isn’t that interesting a character and didn’t seem to have much to do. The other male soprano role, Aristaeus, was sung by Caitlin Hulcup who gave a strong, performance of a very silly character. Sky Ingram was a very glamorous, assertive Venus for the time when she was not disguised, Keri Fuge made a neat Cupid and Verena Gunz an enjoyable Aegea, Euridice’s nurse.

Christian Curmyn conducted. The orchestra of the Early Opera Company played strongly and, I imagine, stylishly. It sounded good and came across very well in this theatre. The audience was enjoying it.

I don’t think they’ve uncovered a masterpiece but I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see at least part of it. However, if there are to me more such, I really do think that the ROH ought to think about the venues for these projects and, particularly, the starting time of these ventures.

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