L'Orfeo review – magical and memorable Monteverdi

Colston Hall, Bristol
Under John Eliot Gardiner and his exceptional group of musicians, every element in Monteverdi’s 1607 music drama was perfectly scaled and projected

This year, there’s no shortage of performances marking the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi. But if any of the events still to come match the concert stagings of the three surviving operas that John Eliot Gardiner is touring all summer with the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and his troupe of solo singers, we will be very lucky indeed. After their exceptional performances of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Gardiner ended his series at its only British venue before the Edinburgh festival in August with an equally outstanding account of L’Orfeo, the work that launched Monteverdi’s operatic career in 1607.

Though it is well known that the first performance of L’Orfeo took place in the ducal palace of the Gonzagas in Mantua, the precise location for the premiere remains a mystery. Whichever chamber was used, it’s unlikely to have been anywhere near the size of some of the venues that Gardiner and his group are performing in, yet there was never a moment in the Colston Hall when the impact of this supremely economical piece of music drama was diluted by the space: everything was perfectly scaled and projected.

L’Orfeo, Colston Hall.
In the spotlight … Krystian Adam in L’Orfeo. Photograph: Paul Box/Colston Hall

As in the previous operas, the staging devised by Gardiner and Elsa Rooke does just what is necessary to unfold the story with total clarity, with the costumes by Patricia Hofstede an easy mix of modern casuals. Like the score, it wastes nothing, and the audible gasp that went round the auditorium when Orfeo takes his fatal look back at Euridice was a measure of how involving it became.

Those who have been fortunate enough to hear all of these performances will have seen how Gardiner’s hand-picked lineup of soloists has been knitted into a real company, with many of the singers taking roles in all three operas. Here it was the tenor Krystian Adam in the spotlight as Orfeo, perfectly catching the swagger of the opening scenes, his histrionic despair after Euridice’s death, and most powerfully of all, giving a wonderfully accomplished account of the great aria Possente Spirto that is the turning point in the drama. This time the bass Gianluca Buratto was lavishing his inky-dark tone on the roles of Coronte and Plutone, while after opening the opera with La Musica’s invocation, Hana Blažíková was also a lively Euridice, while Lucile Richardot squeezed every bit of drama out of the messenger’s report of her death.

Binding it together was Gardiner, knowing exactly when to allow the drama to unfold naturally, when to give it an extra push and how to give the ceremonial moments, with cornetti and sackbuts to the fore, regal and magical power. Played straight through, without an interval, it was all magically coherent, every phrase totally memorable.

• At Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 14 August. Box office: 0131-228 1155.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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