Preview: Orfeo, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Descend to art world for love and loss
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The Independent Culture

Now in its 400th glorious year, the world's first opera - Monteverdi's Orfeo - is still arguably its finest: directors never tire of devising new contexts in which to set it. Last year, we got Orfeo as a desert shaman, and as an Oriental prince surrounded by Javanese dancing girls: Christopher Alden's new production for Opera North will place the action in what must be its unlikeliest setting so far - Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York.

Catching conductor Christopher Moulds during a break from rehearsals with his impeccably period band, I ask how this egregiously un-period show is shaping up. Alden's approach, he says, is "very subtextual", which translates as going against the grain of the text: if characters extol the hero's singing, they do so ironically. Into this freshly created world of privileged coke-heads, the tenor Paul Nilon will be projected as an artist seeking money by means of an audition. That bright young mezzo Anna Stéphany will double as Euridice and Speranza, thus bamboozling the protagonist by at once taunting him and luring him on with hope. Basso-profundo Charon will be a middle-aged gent in an armchair reading a paper. The Underworld won't be the flat downstairs: everything will happen in one space, with Orfeo facing a jury pent-up within a gaffer-tape enclosure.

So how does the essence of this tale of love and loss mesh with the setting? Moulds says: "Er, can I answer that one in two weeks?" No, now please. "The difficulty we're having at the moment is that the characters Christopher is creating sometimes demand emotional effects which are not what Monteverdi intended. It's still a work-in-progress, and we're having ongoing discussions." Will the story move us as it should? "Well, that's my struggle with it, at present." He hastily adds that Alden is very smart, and ready to listen to objections.

Then Moulds retreats to look for ways to stun his 21st-century audience as Monteverdi's extraordinary music once stunned his gilded contemporaries.

Tomorrow to 17 March (08701 214 901)

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