OPERA / Falling victim to style: Stephen Johnson on the English Bach Festival's period-style production of Monteverdi's Orfeo at Covent Garden

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The Independent Culture
The premiere of Monteverdi's Orfeo in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, in 1607 is claimed by historians as a decisive date in the history of the operatic genre. Officially, it is the moment when opera grew up. There is a lot we will probably never know about that first performance. But one thing is certain: there must have been a lot more life in it than there was in the English Bach Festival's Covent Garden version. If it had been anything like Sunday's effort, the whole experiment might have got the ducal thumbs-down, and that would have been the end of it.

There were one or two nice ideas, the period costumes, for instance - though 'period' here means ancient Greek rather than Renaissance Italian. They followed easily recognisable types in the first two acts, though when the drama reached the Underworld they became more imaginative, as in the black cowls, criss-crossed with gold, worn by the menacing-looking Chorus of Spirits. The jewellery and ornaments, too, were beautiful - or at least that's how they seemed in the programme-book photographs. On the stage, they rarely registered more than a luminous blur.

The movement, however, was at best unimaginative and at worst - as in the skipping Arcadian round- dances - faintly embarrassing. One or two of the nymphs and shepherds attempted to introduce a little acting, but sparks were few. As for the Underworld scenes, opportunity after poignant opportunity was missed. This is not an appeal for verismo - plenty can be achieved within the limits of the strictest stylisation - but whether period, modern or pure fantasy, a production needs style. For me, it was hard to remember a production in which the action made so little dramatic impact.

Putting period instruments in an acoustic like the Royal Opera House is fraught with problems, although the English Bach Festival has shown that it can work in some of its previous productions here. In this case, though, the gorgeous wash of plucked and bowed sound in Monteverdi's continuo lost a lot in the spacious dryness. The division of the orchestra into two halves on either side of the stage had its plusses, but it occasionally led to wobbly ensemble. Playing was good but rarely captivating.

In the title-role, Russell Smythe was tonally attractive, convincing in his Italian pronunciation and musical in his phrasing and articulation, but for me he failed to sell the idea of a baritone Orfeo. He did at least attempt to put some conviction into his expression. Many of the other performances were routine - capable, but uninspiring.

Perhaps this would have been less obvious if there hadn't been one outstanding vocal moment: Della Jones's fine acting and commanding, heart-felt singing as the messenger who brings the news of Euridice's death was the one truly operatic moment in the whole evening. For a few minutes we were allowed a reminder of how potent Monteverdi's recitative can be and, perhaps, a glimpse of what that first Mantuan audience must have seen and heard.

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