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Claus Guth’s production of Monteverdi’s early masterpiece is another team effort between Nancy and the Theater an der Wien, where it was unveiled in December 2011.
It follows Guth’s extraordinary staging of Handel’s Messiah, a venture which had some purists up in arms. Why mess with such an untheatrical oratorio, they cried. But to these eyes, it showcased Guth’s uncanny ability to give even the trickiest works a convincingly contemporary gloss.
The same skill is on show in this Orfeo. Guth turns the opera into an autopsy of bereavement, a scrupulous examination of a man’s reaction to the loss of a loved one. He updates the action to the present with a single set, a generously proportioned living room in a comfortable house (Christian Schmidt, impeccable craftsmanship as usual). The opening wedding feast is a fancy dress party on ancient Greek themes but the remaining four acts are a figment of Orpheus’s imagination as he grapples with grief before mixing sleeping pills with whisky and committing suicide.
Others might have chosen the same angle but it takes a director with Guth’s command of gesture and space to make it all work. The confident way he moves soloists and chorus round the stage is simply magical. Everyone on stage has something to do, every movement rings true. And in a daring stroke of fine dramatic counterpoint, the dying Orpheus crawls to the coffee table to cradle Eurydice’s photo for the last time, his spasms in rhythm to the joyous music for the usual deus ex machina happy end. It is so perfectly executed that you leave the theatre wondering how else it could be done.
In the title role, Gyula Orendt fools around with pitch too much for my tastes – baroque singers are becoming increasingly mannered – but his acting is of the highest calibre, lithe of movement and overpowering in his distress. He fully deserves his triumph at curtain call. Gianluca Buratto’s whisky-swilling Pluto, Carol Garcia’s expressive Musica and Elena Galitskaya’s handsomely sung Proserpina stand out among an excellent supporting cast. Even the house chorus, unused to this repertoire, tones down vibrato to preserve transparent textures.
Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques ensemble turn in an exquisitely tailored performance, veering from delicate chamber music accents – Orpheus’s “Possente spirto” is pure poetry and daringly broad in pace – to thrilling blasts from a first-class brass section. Rousset has in the past been ill-served by producers but this partnership is an out-and-out winner.