James Conway's production of L'Orfeo for English Touring Opera places Monteverdi's favola in musica in a post-apocalpytic wasteland of barren branches and bleached rocks. In this curiously dated futuristic hell, where survivors draw lots for their roles in a shamanistic ritual, motifs from Jean Cocteau's film, Orphée remain in the collective consciousness. Instead of a lyre, Orfeo is handed a pair of gloves as he embarks for the underworld. His beloved wife, Euridice, an unwilling player in the rite, is publicly deflowered at their wedding, held down during intercourse then "murdered" by the Messenger. At the close, she is the first to take up a rock for the communal stoning of Orfeo, who, judging by the serried pairs of mittens now visible on the branches at the rear of Kathy Prendergast's set, is not the first to be thus sacrificed.
For a director known for clarity - Conway's searing production of Tolomeo is also touring in ETO's baroque season - this sci-fi L'Orfeo is a baffling departure. Conway is not the first director to emphasise the ritual aspect of the opera or to question its deus ex machina conclusion. Restoring the vengeful Maenads is one thing. But if Euridice's death, Orfeo's sorrow, the Messenger's agony, and Proserpina's sympathy are not presented as real and sincerely felt, the central thesis of Monteverdi's Prologue - that music has power to move, console, and change those who listen to it - is nullified. Where Monteverdi offers an affirmative to love and hope and grief, Conway posits a cold critique of belief. As to the gloves, Xenophon saw them as a sign of effeminacy, which may or may not be relevant to this concept.
Despite the challenge of acting roles within roles, ETO's cast have created an ensemble that bodes well for a tour in which each singer will take several parts in five works. The madrigalian choruses, duets and trios are sensitively shaped and decorated, and every word of Anne Ridler's translation is clear. Several voices are outstanding - Hal Cazalet's light, flexible Orfeo, Susan Atherton's delicate Speranza - and all respond beautifully to the colours of the period instruments in the pit. Directing from the harpsichord, organ and regal, Rob Howarth shows a clear understanding of the musical narrative. His ritornelli are sharp and invigorating, and though the English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble deliver a rather beery toccata, their Stygian sinfonia is thick and pungent. Leading the plucked continuo, David Miller plays with great intelligence, while Frances Kelly's harp solo in Possente spirto is as magical as Conway's staging is anti-magical.
No mittens in Odysseus Unwound, Julian Grant and Hattie Naylor's new opera for Tête à Tête, but plenty of wool. Developed in workshops with the knitters and spinners of Shetland, Odysseus Unwound tries to marry the rhythms of this ancient female art with a feminist reading of the polymorphously perverse hero's return to Ithaca. The result is over-long and unbalanced - the Prologue and Act I flash by, while Acts II and III are dense with amorous and supernatural adventure - but is so beautifully played by Chroma under Tim Murray, and so very well sung and acted that this shoe-string touring production is a must-see.
Perhaps inevitably, the knitting is more obviously felt in Bill Bankes-Jones's athletic direction and in the nets and webs of Tim Meacock's designs than it is in the music. Five Shetland craftswomen are on stage throughout, clicking softly as Phyllis Cannan, Sadhbh Dennedy, Monica Brett-Crowther, Louise Mott and Kim-Marie Woodhouse take multiple roles as monsters, matriarchs, sailors, seers, and witches. I can't say I spotted the "print o'the waves" pattern in Grant's frequently gorgeous Ravellian scoring for chamber orchestra and rich, Poulenc-influenced ensemble writing for female voices. Nor did I catch Doon da routh in the conga for Circe's farting pigs. But the loop and pull of thematic threads is as insistent as the whirr of the spinning wheel as Odysseus (Daniel Broad) is repeatedly reeled in and cast off by the formidable women of Homer's epic. That Tête à Tête routinely attract performers of this calibre to off-beat venues like the disused theatre of Alexandra Palace is testament to their brilliance.Reuse content