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October 1, 2013 5:09 pm
The Academy of Ancient Music began life as “a refugee operation for period-instrument players”, in the words of its founder Christopher Hogwood. Forty years on, and 300 recordings later, it’s a leader in the field, especially when it comes to innovative historic collaborations: it was the AAM that played Handel afloat at the Thames Jubilee pageant last year, and which brought the sound world of Vermeer to vivid life at London’s National Gallery this summer. Now under the inspired leadership of Richard Egarr, the band kicked off its 40th-anniversary season with a bold new concert staging of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the Barbican, where it is an associate ensemble.
For director Orpha Phelan, Orfeo’s Thracian wedding became an arranged mafia marriage, Sopranos -style. The rigid archetypes and honour codes of this particular underworld transfer to Ovid’s myth without strain: Euridice (Sophie Bevan) is a reluctant trophy bride, taking her own life before it’s too late, while Orfeo (John-Mark Ainsley) is going through the public motions required of a clan-leader groom, impatient for intimacy. It’s only when Euridice dies that he begins to comprehend his loss, and descends into the psychological hell of grief, with a nurse standing in place of Speranza (the luminous Daniela Lehner) and Caronte as the morgue’s pathologist (a rather wooden Paul Gerimon).
Bar-tending moll Proserpina (Katherine Manley) does a nice number in sexy persuasion to Dawid Kimberg’s Pluto, but her proffered solution to Orfeo’s woes is drink. Euridice appears as an alcohol-fuelled mirage, fading as he sobers up. While this interpretation undermines the dramatic crisis of the forbidden look, it’s all too real as a depiction of haunted bereavement.
Ainsley has the role under his skin, and delivered a performance of angry pathos. His dark tenor has an almost baritone-like depth and heft, a fine foil to the younger Thomas Hobbs’s radiant Apollo/Pastore. In Ainsley’s great centre piece aria “Possente spirto” his ornate melismas were seductively controlled; in the next he gave way to broken sprechstimme. The role has never felt so raw and contemporary.
Egarr’s mercurial energy ignited an alert, articulate reading, but did not always carry back to the chorus, whose entries were occasionally sluggish. Darkling, gritty sackbuts, the hieratic twang of a Baroque harp rising through dimly-lit mist, conjured a dream-like Hades in the utilitarian Barbican hall. The subtle use of different continuo combinations always supported, but never overwhelmed, the poetry. No modern ensemble can ever replace the brindled textures created by these instruments, expertly played; one thinks of Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, which praises “all things counter, original, spare, strange”.
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