Britain’s first Academy of Ancient Music was founded in 1726 as a private club of singers meeting in a London tavern to entertain each other: ‘ancient’ meant anything not in the contemporary repertory. Britain’s second AAM was founded in 1973 by harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood, to perform what was now called ‘early music’ on original instruments. Over the past four decades they have helped revolutionise early-music performance, blazing a trail followed by Baroque ensembles everywhere.
Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” was the perfect work for the AAM’s fortieth anniversary, and hundreds of people came to a pre-performance talk by composer Fabrice Fitch (though its dullness drove many away before the end). In the auditorium a surprise awaited them in the form of a semi-staged production by Orpha Phelan. And for the second time in a week (the first being Calixto’s Bieito’s “Fidelio” at the Coliseum) we got a taste of what can happen when a great opera falls into the hands of a stage director who doesn’t trust it to speak for itself.
Phelan’s strategy was set out in a programme note. Claiming that “Orfeo” was ‘crying out to speak to us’ but needed a little directorial help, she had decided to set it in the context of “The Sopranos”. Orfeo and Euridice, belonging to different mafia clans, would have an arranged and loveless celebrity-trash marriage; the classical underworld would be a morgue, with Charon a pathologist, and Orfeo’s epic trip, during which he realised that actually he had loved Euridice, would be an alcoholic binge. This sort of bright idea could only occur to someone who had neither read a line of the libretto, nor responded to the music. As a result, setting aside Orfeo weeping over his wife’s corpse, the disconnect between what we saw and what we heard was well-nigh total.
Mercifully the singers managed to combine plausible but minimal movement with performances of such quality that, with Richard Egarr’s chorus and players in top form, the opera came across with its power undimmed. Apart from Sophie Bevan’s trudging Euridice and Paul Gerimon’s woefully inadequate Charon, all the solo parts were good to wonderful. The roles of Proserpina/Messagiera and La Musica/Speranza were exquisitely sung by Katherine Manley and Daniela Lehner, while tenor Thomas Hobbs was outstanding in a resonant trio of Shepherds. And with John Mark Ainsley bringing consummate artistry and exceptional beauty of tone to the title role, this “Orfeo” rent the heart.