This month, I went to see Cavalli’s opera L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the newly opened intimate indoor theatre within Shakespeare’s Globe. This was a co-production between the Royal Opera House (ROH) and the Globe, and Kasper Holten’s first attempt to take Baroque opera productions out of the main opera house at Covent Garden. Holten, the energetic Director of Opera at the ROH, has recently said to the Times that “…we can’t do early opera at Covent Garden: the main house is too big for Monteverdi and Cavalli and we want to focus the Linbury on the new and experimental.” Next January, the ROH will take Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to the Roundhouse in Camden, the first opera to be “specifically conceived for the venue”.

Joélle Harvey (Sicle) in L'Ormindo © Stephen Cummiskey
Joélle Harvey (Sicle) in L'Ormindo
© Stephen Cummiskey

In fact, other companies have already attempted similar ventures, so the move by the ROH isn’t exactly new. Three years ago, the English National Opera took Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse (The Return of Ulysses) to the Young Vic Theatre and gave it a cutting-edge theatrical interpretation of this Homer-inspired opera that was highly praised. Coincidentally, next season ENO will take the same composer’s L’Orfeo to the Bristol Old Vic – another non-operatic theatre – so we can expect the battle of the Orfeos between the ROH and ENO. Elsewhere on the continent, Frankfurt Opera has staged Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (another coincidence!) and Cavalli’s La Calisto in a former tramway depot venue called Bockenheimer Depot which has become their alternative venue for early operas. Their production of La Calisto in 2011 used this unconventional space imaginatively, actively involving the audience in the proceedings. Following on its success, they will stage Telemann’s Orpheus oder die Wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe in May/June (another Orfeo opera!).

L'Ormindo © Stephen Cummiskey
© Stephen Cummiskey

In principle, I understand why Holten wants to take opera out of the main house. ROH has never had a good track record with pre-Mozart operas, unlike ENO where they have been hugely successful with their numerous Handel productions and have an enthusiastic following. In the past decade, I can remember main house productions of Handel’s Orlando and Tamerlano, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Steffani’s Niobe, Cavalli’s La Calisto and a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Handel’s Acis and Galatea but I can’t really say that any of them were box office successes (except for maybe the Purcell/Handel double bill in the Handel anniversary year). Artistically, the productions of Iphigénie and La Calisto were particularly memorable with a great cast and the outstanding period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) in the pit, but my general feeling was that the majority of the traditional audience at the ROH lacked the enthusiasm for pre-Mozart operatic repetoire. Furthermore, if one sat further back in the Amphitheatre, much of the dialogue in the recitatives (crucial in Baroque opera) and the colours and nuances of the period instruments would be lost.

For large-sized opera houses such as the ROH and ENO, there are two obvious benefits to taking Baroque opera out of the main house: firstly, a more suitable-sized venue for the work as well as for the voices and ensemble, and secondly they will have the liberty to collaborate with various early music conductors and period-instrument orchestras. In Europe, opera houses such as Théâtre des Champ-Elysées in Paris and Theater an der Wien, which have been successful in specialising in Baroque and early operas, have teamed up with a variety of period ensembles according to the composer and type of work. Furthermore, staging early operas in smaller venues will give young singers a great opportunity to shine, as in the recent ROH L’Ormindo and in ENO's Orfeo next year, which is cast from its Harewood Artists scheme.

Ed Lyon (Amidas) and Susanna Hurrell (Erisbe) © Stephen Cummiskey
Ed Lyon (Amidas) and Susanna Hurrell (Erisbe)
© Stephen Cummiskey

The big question is can these companies cultivate a new audience by taking Baroque operas outside the opera house, which they seem intent on doing. Judging from chats with fellow audiences at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for L’Ormindo, they seemed predominantly Covent Garden regulars with interest in Baroque repertoire, but perhaps ROH can reach out to a broader audience at the Roundhouse with L’Orfeo if they can get the pricing and publicity right. In fact, operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli seem to work particularly well in smaller venues, as was recently demonstrated by the delightfully direct production of La Calisto by the enterprising Hampstead Garden Opera in the pub theatre Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Here, a Cavalli opera sits side by side with a diverse theatre programme, attracting local theatregoers as well as opera fans. So there is a potential audience out there if opera houses can reach out to them.

By choosing the director Michael Boyd, the Royal Opera may be trying to attract a more theatre-going public to the opera. ENO is taking a similar move with choosing Tom Morris for the Bristol Old Vic Orfeo. I am not too sure about ROH performing these Baroque operas in English – after all, we have ENO – although I admit it did work for L’Ormindo in that venue.

It remains to be seen whether companies can really cultivate a new audience by taking Baroque operas out to new venues, but I am happy that finally they are thinking about the future of early operatic repertoire at the company.