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Experimental feature

Exactly 400 years ago, give or take a couple of weeks, Monteverdi’s Orfeo received its first performance in Mantua. A few years later the new Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall hosted the first Stuart masques. It was impossible to miss the historical resonance of those two events on Wednesday, when the English Bach Festival performed Orfeo in the Banqueting House, still resplendent in sight and sound after four centuries.

Orfeo is widely regarded as the first great opera, and this performance told us why. It showed that the power of Monteverdi’s music derives from its expressive simplicity, and that a simple staging unleashes that power as well as – if not better than – a more sophisticated interpretation. That is one of the virtues of the English Bach Festival (proprietor: the redoubtable Lina Lalandi). Unlike other companies that, often incongruously, match period musical awareness to modern visual presentation, EBF seeks to harmonise sight and sound through historically aware costumes and dances, and a conversational style of delivery in tune with Monteverdi’s time.

Those aims are perfectly served by the Banqueting House, where the proximity of performers to audience gives everyone a sense of participation. Each member of the cast becomes a soloist, and together they exude – and command from their listeners – an intense concentration. In that context Monteverdi’s recitatives, framed by songs, madrigalian choruses and instrumental music, exert an unparalleled appeal.

The temptation is to dismiss EBF’s visual style – very much of the classical nymphs-and-shepherds variety – as old-fashioned, but I found the very lack of distraction made it easier to understand and inhabit Monteverdi’s poetic allegory. The same applied to Christopher Tudor’s Hellenic-inspired choreography and Lawrence Cummings’s wonderfully alive musical direction. What Richard Edgar-Wilson’s Orfeo lacked in intensity he made up in poise and eloquence, especially in “Possente spirto”, the opera’s centrepiece. The vibrancy of the other voices – notably Yvette Bonner’s Euridice, Sally Harrison’s La Musica, Della Jones’s La Messaggiera and Catherine King’s La Speranza – added to a memorable night.

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