Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the York Early Music Festival

It was bold of the York Early Music Festival to mount a full-scale single performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Not unexpectedly, given the expert and experienced forces engaged for the work, the music was executed with brilliance and passionate commitment.  The soloists and vocal ensemble of I Fagiolini communicated idiomatically and vividly all the facets of Monteverdi’s remarkable score, from the swagger and joy of the celebratory passages to the poignant, lachrymose bewailing of misery when fate deals out its harsh blows. Tenor Matthew Long sang the title role with untiring fresh tone, bringing an intensity of expression to the phrasing of the vocal line. Among the other singers, Ciara Hendrick, as La Musica and Messaggera, impressed with her beautifully placed, warm mezzo, and her sensitivity to the instrumental accompaniment of the vocalisation. Her narration of Euridice’s death in Act Two was the musical highlight of the evening.

Under Robert Hollingworth’s direction the period orchestra relished the opportunity to bring out the harmonic twists and turns in the dramatic episodes as well as to bounce along in the rollicking dances, the body language of the instrumentalists revealing how emotionally engaged they were in the performance. That was true not the least of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble whose resplendent fanfares at the beginning and end of proceedings frameworked the show.

Although given in the University’s Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, this was not a simple concert version. Indeed, for his staging, Thomas Guthrie bent over backwards to endow the performance with theatricality but sadly to excess. The idea of using almost life-size puppets for Orfeo and Euridice was a good one. As Guthrie remarks in his programme note, their presence underlines the “externalising characteristics of myth” and encourages the audience to exercise their imagination in responding to the story. However, requiring these puppets to be held by both puppeteers and the singer of the character in question was awkward and created an ambiguity for the spectators: should they concentrate on the puppet or the singer – or try to do both? Add to this the fact that during the first half the chorus interacted with face masks: was this to dehumanise those commenting on the action? And if so, why did these masks disappear in the second half?  Then, in certain passages (it was unclear what was special about them) large but not easily legible projected images of the Italian text distractingly swooped along the walls on either side of the auditorium. All of this conflicted with, rather than enhanced, the compelling simplicity and clarity of Monteverdi’s musical drama and marred what was, in other respects, an excellent performance.