Lyre, lyre: Bringing 'Orfeo' to the London stage

The world’s first great opera is to be the first staged at London’s Roundhouse

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The Independent Culture

“It’s quite a patchwork of talent, this particular production” says Michael Boyd about his new take on Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which looks set to be quite the opening shot in the 2015 operatic calendar. After all, it’s a patchwork made up of the very finest squares: a Royal Opera production, but taking place at Camden’s much-loved  venue, the Roundhouse, it sees the former artistic director of the RSC take the helm, with designs by long-time collaborator Tom Piper – whose “poppies” at the Tower of London so captured the public imagination last year – and the award-winning poet Don Paterson provides a fresh translation of Alessandro Striggio’s Italian libretto.


The production is also notable for its long list of firsts. Dating from 1607, Orfeo is widely considered to be the first great opera – and certainly the earliest still regularly performed. Meanwhile, this is not only the first time the Royal Opera has staged Orfeo, but is intended as the start of a sustained collaboration with the Roundhouse. Orfeo is also the Roundhouse’s first opera, Boyd’s first opera, and Paterson’s first libretto – and as if that weren’t enough, the show is also buoyed by the Roundhouse’s work with more opera debutantes, featuring as it will 15 teenagers from East London Dance and nine student singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

There’s good reason for all this high-stakes invention – the aim is to crack open Orfeo, not only finding a new way to the truth of the ancient story of Orpheus and Euridice, but also making early opera accessible to the widest possible audience. When Kasper Holten became Director of Opera at the ROH in 2011, he went to meet Marcus Davey, Artistic Director at the Roundhouse, and was “completely mesmerised, not just by the venue but also the work they do with young people”. The hope is that the show will not only tempt Covent Garden regulars up to the Roundhouse, but also young Roundhouse gig goers to opera.

The Roundhouse’s large circular space provides its own challenges, however. Piper, who worked with Boyd on the RSC’s Histories cycle there, knows it well. His set features two circular stages plus a ceiling; the double-layer creates a sense of the “gods, or people in authority, looking down on the poor mortals below”. The acoustics are tricky – but, he says, “the orchestra is sitting at the back of a megaphone shape, a roof above them and angled floor below, so that should help the sound bounce out”.

The conductor Christopher Moulds is also attuned to the difficulties of this staging, but acknowledges that performing in the round aids intimacy, bringing Orfeo closer to its original staging; Monteverdi was commissioned for a court performance, so it would have simply been performed in a large room.

As Moulds explains, the original performance conditions also help explain why this opera still works for modern audiences: Monteverdi was given a “huge budget” which he spent on an orchestra of up to 40 instruments. This enabled dramatic sonic shifts between, say, pastoral scenes with lutes to underworld scenes with brass sackbuts and “a keyboard instrument called a regal which makes a sort of farting noise,” says Moulds. All this gives Orfeo a “broad tonal palette, and for people who don’t listen to a lot of early opera, it’s something for their ears to hang on to”.

Meanwhile, as far as the words go, Boyd says Paterson has come up with best English libretto he’s ever read. The aim was to write something “accessible and pretty contemporary in its syntax”, Paterson tells me – but fitting that to the music was easier said than done …. “I started off naively thinking that I could just make a nice rhyming, scanning translation of Striggio, and then figure out how to fit it. But that turned out to be idiotic, mainly because Monteverdi did what most composers do with poetry and verse, which is to completely ignore it.”

Happily, the slog of writing to the score, note-by-note, brought unexpected benefits: “The unconscious is maybe freer to speak because you’re distracted by the technical challenge of trying to place your shoes exactly in Monteverdi’s footprints It’s a weird story, but I don’t think I’ve made it any less weird ….”

Yet this weird story – of a man venturing into the underworld to plead for his dead wife’s resurrection with the help of his famous lyre – seems to hold an endless fascination for artists, from Haydn to Stravinsky, to Jean Cocteau’s Orphic film trilogy and Anais Mitchell’s 2010 folk-opera Hadestown. What is it that makes the myth so ripe for reinvention?

“It continues to say something very true about human nature,” suggests Paterson. “When our loved ones die, it confuses us, because things aren’t supposed to just disappear. Orpheus refuses to accept that, to his cost. But he also realises it’s music, of all things, that will gain him entry to a timeless world where our dead are not dead.” Boyd agrees. “The biggest problem that we face is that we die. It’s a Greek myth that examines what happens to someone who says, I refuse to accept this. It’s very recognisable.”

Boyd’s production will offer up an abstractly modern setting, with the Gods as besuited authority figures, of economic as well as religious import. He’s not a fan of the “Baroque notions of the pastoral”, so shepherds will become literal pastors (punning on pastore, the Italian for shepherd). The aim is “to make the power-play between the gods and the mortals more recognisable”, he says – though ultimately, the opera endures because of how it tackles the two unchanging human preoccupations. “It’s really straightforward: it’s sex and death. End of story.”

‘Orfeo’ is at the Roundhouse 13 to 24 Jan;