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Opera in the round has a curious distancing effect. The ‘slight amplification’ of singers and instrumentalists causes the sound to acquire a West End musical-like sheen. But one is prepared to set that niggle aside for such a well-intentioned collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Roundhouse, presenting a new English-language production of Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ to a younger audience.
Regarded as the first fully formed opera, ‘Orfeo’ premiered in 1607 and is a beautifully poised, slowly unfolding and heart-rending tale of love triumphing over death and the power of music to bewitch even the guardians of hell. In the title role Hungarian-Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt is entrancing; dressed in a white linen suit, he glides around, lithely venting his love and pain. His beloved wife Euridice is played splendidly by Mary Bevan, who looks genuinely bereft when Orfeo turns to look at her, thus breaking the terms of her release from death. Meanwhile, mezzo Susan Bickley is confident in the role of Silvia the heartbroken messenger but is surely a little out of place in such a young cast. In fact, some of the most direct and engaging singing comes courtesy of a trio of priests (updated from the original’s shepherds), most notably American countertenor Christopher Lowrey.
Michael Boyd’s direction makes clever use of Tom Piper’s minimal designs, notably a long sloping gangplank from which the cast descend to the large round stage, thereby entering and exiting Hades. Above the action sit Pluto (a regal-looking Callum Thorpe) and wife Persephone (an equally elegant Rachel Kelly) flanked by the chorus.
The costumes are a mix of modern and Renaissance: nightclub bouncers in dark suits and wearing earpieces guard the underworld; a Guildhall School choir competently tackling the madrigal-style choruses is dressed like an office of solicitors. Beneath them, the netherworld is even drabber as the enthusiastic young hoofers of East London Dance – representing the hellish sprites – in blue boiler suits make this favola in musica look like it’s set in a borstal.
Harpsichordist Christopher Moulds directs the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company to play confidently. And although the brass fanfares sound more dirty-squeezebox-in-a-tavern than bright Mantuan carnival, it sets a swagger that the production may grow into as it runs.