The magic started early. As we sipped our drinks on the lawn outside the Garsington tent, the trumpet-and-drum fanfare that opens Monteverdi’s Orfeo – in truth, the fanfare that opens the whole history of opera – wafted across to us from the lakeshore, summoning us to take our seats. Inside, Laurence Cummings and the musicians of the English Concert sat arrayed around a vision of pastoral nymphs-and-shepherds bliss remarkable for its economy of means: creamy white costumes amidst hundreds of thin strips of green cloth suspended from above, with a single, giant ring of light which would serve first as daylight and later, turned vertical, as the path between Hades and the mortal world.

Diana Montague (Silvia), Zoe Drummond (Euridice) and dancers
© Garsington Opera | Julian Guidera

If Robert Jones’ sets and Paul Pyant’s lighting did an exceptional job of getting us into the right frame of mind for Orfeo’s journey from lovesickness to the sweetness of requited love to the despair of loss, John Caird’s direction and Arielle Smith’s choreography were more remarkable still. Let’s be frank: not much happens in the first two acts of Orfeo, so on a bad day, it can drag fearfully. Here, there was no question of that: six dancers and a dozen or so singers were constantly in motion in patterns that ebbed and flowed to keep us fully engaged with the mood of the music. So well coordinated was the movement that it was often hard to tell which were singers and which were dancers.

Zoe Drummond (Euridice) and Ed Lyon (Orfeo)
© Garsington Opera | Craig Fuller

The music was played superbly, with unerring feel for the balance between instruments, the shifting of pace and the need to make space for the singers. At one moment we could be in an energetic, foot-thumping dance; the next, we could be the Mantuan nobility listening to genteel entertainment; the next, we could be overcome by the grief of a lament – or the musicians might simply be serving as drivers of the story. The continuo instruments – theorbos, harp, harpsichord, chamber organ – were always present but never overpowering. Strings intervened energetically or plaintively. A recorder added the Arcadian flavour of a shepherd’s pipe; a pair of solo violins and then a pair of cornets created echoes. This was a highly accomplished rendering of Monteverdi.

The title role is by far the biggest and Ed Lyon was an appealing Orfeo, with a fair share of vocal beauty, plenty of vigour and good characterisation of each of the many moods. Otherwise, this is an ensemble piece, so I’ll only pick out a few names from an ensemble in which all the singing was of high quality. Diana Montague stole the show as Silvia (the messenger who brings the news of Eurydice’s death from snakebite): powerful, fervent, heartbreaking. Ossian Huskinson’s Pluto exuded authority with a growling bass that plumbed the depths.

Lauren Joyanne Morris (Proserpina) and Ossian Huskinson (Pluto)
© Garsington Opera | Craig Fuller

The interval was taken at the end of Act 2, so appropriately, night was falling as we accompanied Orfeo on his journey into the underworld. The highest praise I can give the singers is that they collectively brought home how wonderful is the poetry in Alessandro Striggio’s libretto: the famous Dante quote of “Abandon hope, all who enter here” modified to Hope with a capital H as Laura Fleur’s La Speranza leaves the stage. Then, another extraordinary piece of staging with Charon’s boat brilliantly incarnated by three dancers and a few metres of black cloth. The pace didn’t let up: Possente Spirto, Orfeo’s plea to Charon to carry him across the river, is a very slow aria, but it didn’t feel slow. Lauren Joyanne Morris thrilled as Persephone pleading to Pluto that he should grant Orfeo’s wish for Eurydice’s return, completely believable as a goddess so charming that even the king of the underworld could not possibly resist her. The sight and sound of Zoe Drummond’s Eurydice, singing her lament as she reaches vainly with her hand through the ring of light, will not be easily forgotten. 

Ed Lyon (Orfeo) and Zoe Drummond (Euridice)
© Garsington Opera | Julian Guidera

To close, we were treated to Cummings stepping away from his keyboard to sing the part of Apollo, his head adorned by a golden circlet as befits the lord of music-makers (this production chooses the 1609 happy ending of Orfeo being raised to the stars, rather than the 1607 ending where he is torn apart by the Bacchantes). And then, an even bigger treat of an encore, the whole company singing a heart-melting madrigal Che dar piú vi poss'io?. It concluded a night of blissful Monteverdi magic.