Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi Libretto by Alessandro Striggio 4**** Garsington Opera, Wormsley estate, Stokenchurch. Clare Colvin

There could be no better setting for Monteverdi’s first opera Orfeo than Garsington deep in the Chiltern Hills. Grass and trees surround the pavilion where Robert Jones’s pastoral design of long strands of green drift through a circular O, representing eternity, above a woodland pool. The cast and musicians wear white and cream for the first two acts of the Arcadian tragedy. Unusually, director John Caird extended an invitation to the audience to wear similar shades, and quite a number on the second night turned up in lighter shades of pale. The point was that Monteverdi’s 1607 work was not only the first of the new art form of opera, but also a sort of collaboration with the music-loving audience at the ducal court of Mantua taking part in the experiment.
The opera’s tale of love and loss is universal – the poet Orpheus, son of Apollo, falls in love with Euridice, and they marry. He loses Euridice when she dies from a snakebite; descends into the underworld to rescue her, and suffers the loss again when he disobeys Hell’s condition not to look back to see if Euridice is following him.
The exclamatory notes of the initial fanfare of trumpets riveted attention from the start, leading to La Musica’s introductory aria, exquisitely sung by soprano Claire Lees. On the grassy bank to one side of the stage the white-clad musicians of the English Concert under conductor/harpsichord Laurence Cummings accompanied the six dancers in the interludes leading up to the abrupt intervention by mezzo-soprano Diana Montague’s Messenger which stops the wedding celebration in its tracks.
Tenor Ed Lyon bears the weight of the opera on his shoulders, in the hero’s seesaw of emotions on the journey to Hell and back, with Australian soprano Zoe Drummond as a pure-toned Euridice. After the interval comes an intense third act, with musicians in black, and dry ice wafting through the gates of Hell. Black material piloted by sinister harpies is formed into a ferry for bass-baritone Frazer Scott’s dark-voiced Charon. The bass-baritone Ossian Huskisson, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, hits the low notes as Pluto, and mezzo Lauren Joyanne Morris is a tenderly persuasive Persephone.
The Orfeo written for the 1607 carnival ended with Orfeo being torn apart by the Furies, but a happier ending was chosen for the 1609 production, scheduled for a ducal wedding.. Garsington adopted the later version, which has Apollo transporting his bereft son to the eternal life of heaven. Beautifully devised, and having one more treat in store – as the audience applauded, the cast re-grouped to sing one of Monteverdi’s loveliest madrigals from Libro 5 “Che dar piú vi poss’io”. In repertoire till 3 July

Conductor/harpsichord: Laurence Cummings
Director: John Caird
Designer: Robert Jones
Lighting designer: Paul Pyant
Choreographer: Arielle Smith
Assistant conductor/harpsichord: Christopher Bucknall
Assistant director: Rebecca Meltzer
Chorus director: Jonathon Cole-Swinard
Production pictures: Craig Fuller

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