Ruling passion

CLASSICAL: Monteverdi's Orfeo; Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and touring
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The Independent Culture
Kent Opera's carefully paced resurrection has gained fresh energy with a compelling production of Monteverdi's Orfeo, accessible in style and delivered by an attractive young cast. Here is a company determined to make the most of its resources and committed to the idea of stimulating its audiences, a combination that made up for any occasional shortcomings in the quality of its performers.

The dramatic power of Monteverdi's work was revealed without robbing any of its intimacy, projecting Orfeo's despair clearly and underlining the character's frailty. Tim Carroll's staging proved satisfyingly simple, enlivened by Terry Gilbert's graceful treatment of the choral dances and assured choreography elsewhere. Kent Opera stalwart Roger Butlin struck a convincing balance between classical austerity and Baroque excess in his designs, presenting a monolithic backdrop to the realm of Hades and conjuring up a lurid vision of its infernal inhabitants that would have pleased Peter Greenaway. Paul Grier's blubbery Charon was suitably repellent, wearing a bald wig, a leather corset and enough chains to suggest that fans of bondage need not abandon all hope of fun in the Underworld.

Gwion Thomas was in heroic form as Orfeo, rich of voice and entirely at ease with the wide range of his part. The smoothness of his legato and effortless delivery of the text gave an impression of Italian warmth, not always reproduced by others in the cast who stumbled over the diphthongs and other linguistic hurdles of Anne Ridler's idiomatic English translation. Above all, Thomas had an innate feeling for the style of Monteverdi's monody, outlining his plea to Charon in the third act with heart-breaking tenderness and bringing an unforced naturalness to his final lament for Euridice. Likewise, Rachel Wheatley's pure-voiced Euridice, Juliet Schiemann's alluring Hope and Clara Sanabras's Messenger were founded on the principles of good singing, expressive in their response to the text and imaginative in their variations of tone colour. The Pluto of Martin Robson was suitably implacable, a cold-hearted complement to the likeable Proserpina of Esther King, while Paul Grier suggested that beefy Charon was blessed with a hint of human kindness.

Rhythmic freedom was encouraged by music director John Toll and his admirable team of continuo players. Debates about the speed of dances and the ritornelli in early Baroque opera seem irrelevant when a work is conditioned by a desire to highlight the drama and passion of the music. Toll focused on the tragedy of Orfeo and Euridice, which was exploited by the company's principal players and convincingly conveyed in the choral numbers following Euridice's death. Andrew Stewart