Orfeo, Coliseum, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

Culture clash in the Underworld
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The Independent Culture

The one wedding and a funeral so dramatically juxtaposed by Monteverdi and his librettist Striggio in their remarkable opera Orfeo brings an equally bold but questionable clash of cultures and temperaments to the London Coliseum. The Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng (in a co-production with the Handel and Haydn Society, Boston) brings us Indonesian dancers, a bewildering mix of costumes (by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward), and a hint of art installation to his often beautiful set design (Tom Pye). The wedding is a mish-mash, the funeral exotic, and the aftermath - Orfeo's journey to the Underworld - gravely beautiful. Quite how they added up I am less sure.

What is definite is the dominance of the score in all its splendour and textural seductiveness. Laurence Cummings, directing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, has delivered an aural feast. As the festive clamour of Monteverdi's opening fanfare ricochets from the stage boxes - sackbuts, trumpets and drums brazenly spiriting us back four centuries with such vivid immediacy as to have us experiencing whiplash - there is at once a sense that scholarship and theatricality are united in filling this huge theatre with sounds that actually mean something, that elicit a physical and emotional response. The sheer depth of the continuo, the sumptuous alliance between viola da gambas and theorbos, the wash of richly ornamented keyboards supporting equally ornamented vocal declamation. And not just the sheer sound but the vitality and gravity of Cummings' direction, too.

What more could a staging add, one might ask. Less, one might reply. The best moments in Shi-Zheng's production were those which found his protagonist Orfeo in glorious isolation. The image of him seen against the huge, gleaming orb of the earth to convey his smallness in the cosmic scheme of things - that was wonderful. The nocturnally lit auditorium (Scott Zielinski) suggesting our place in the cosmos - that, too, was wonderful. As was the way in which the few scenic trappings were used emblematically - so that the marriage canopy became the boat ferrying dead souls became the cloud-like throne on which Apollo descended and Orfeo ascended (harnessed like an aspiring mountaineer) at the close.

But first there was that wedding, teetering perilously close to the Indonesian equivalent of Bollywood. Except on this occasion it was gatecrashed by a handful of champagne-swilling, skirt-chasing oiks - the Western contribution to civilisation, or so Shi-Zheng seemed to be saying.

I'm still not sure what his dancers (the Orange Island Dance Company) added to the proceedings - other than to underline the universality of this great piece of Western art. For sure they were graceful and relatively unobtrusive in a diaphanous sort of way, but beyond their escort functions, ferrying the principals to and fro, they brought little that was expressively pertinent to the evening.

Better to have focused entirely on the body language of the protagonists. The marvellous John Mark Ainsley has made something of a speciality of the title role and brings to it remarkable emotional and physical concentration. His body seems forever primed, his torso leaning expectantly into each moment, graceful and strong, warrior-like. The physical stylisations beautifully complement the vocal, with Ainsley soaring and keening, finding ecstasy and torment in those glittering melismas.

But then, the entire company displayed mastery of the style to an impressive degree. Notable were the ENO Young Singer Elizabeth Watts as Music/Hope, Wendy Dawn Thompson's Messenger dispatching her terrible news with so much sensitivity and Brindley Sherratt's sepulchral-voiced Charon.

"Songs of silver and gold work gentle magic.... The universe is alive with cosmic music," pronounces the text. Indeed. Chen Shi-Zheng has less to add than he might think.

In rep to Friday (0870 145 0200; www.eno.org)

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