Although wider society revels in lapping up its excesses, there are very few things someone dipping their toe into opera for the first time really needs. A keen ear, an open eye and a mind that welcomes theatrical possibility should suffice. But a working knowledge of the legend of Orpheus certainly helps too, says Martin Wåhlberg. “I mean, every opera lover knows Orpheus – there are tens and tens and tens of operas written on his story, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet almost all seem to concentrate on the same thing – that is, the very small story about love. We wanted to see if it was possible to tell the full story.”

Martin Wåhlberg
© Rob Wheal

I’m chatting with Wåhlberg, director of Orkester Nord (formerly Trondheim Barokk) about their upcoming production Orfeo Uncut. He speaks with the kind of passion that’s unique to musicians working in this era of music, getting giddily carried away when presented with a wealth of fresh information and a new person to enthuse to about it.

That dedicated research plays a central role in Orkester Nord’s new production, which presents a fuller, more complex and more radical version of the Orpheus myth. Combining works from familiar composers (Monteverdi, Handel, Telemann) and less so (Florence’s Domenico Belli and Rome’s Stefano Landi), the result is a series of six short sequences. Recorded in Trondheim’s old Dahls brewery before being transported to France (where visuals are added by adventurous production company Le Philtre), these audio-visual feasts will be available online as part of the Barokkfest, which runs from 30th May to 4th June.

The drive to present the operas in in this way is in part a reaction to the times. Like so many organisations whose work involves masses of performers on stage, Orkester Nord have had to fundamentally rethink their projects in the wake of the Covid crisis. A production of Handel’s Orlando in Opéra Royal de Versailles was a particular highlight that fell by the wayside.

Orfeo Uncut
© Barokkfest Early Music Festival

Wåhlberg and the team needed to pivot the artform towards the realities of the day. “We didn't want to do a streamed concert, or a streamed production. To be honest, I find them boring,” he says with a laugh. But there is truth in what Wåhlberg says. Adding yet more screen-time to a working life now so dominated by digital media doesn’t make for a particularly healthy experience. It’s a generational thing too. “Our kids, they just watch things online, but they don't have any notion of linear television. If they watch children's things on television, they'd just ask 'can we watch the next episode'. They don't realise there's only one episode a week…”

But these online offerings exist as more than just a next best thing for Covid-times. Wåhlberg believes that, in lieu of live performance, there’s a need to tailor productions to the formats audiences are actually consuming outside of the opera house. “The things that people are watching are not too long. When do you actually watch films on your phone or your computer? [What people want] is not necessarily those things that last for two hours, it's often short things.” Orfeo Uncut’s focus on shorter forms is part of a wider ambition for Orkester Nord. “We want to participate in changing how people can experience classical music visually online, and perhaps speak to new generations – we'll see what the result looks like!”

The devised opera is an increasingly regular form in opera houses. For some detractors, it’s the latest escalation of Regietheater, where directors not only have free rein to decide on all elements of the production, but where they are able to fundamentally change the context of the musical works to suit their desire for theatrical narrative.

When forging a new narrative out of existing material, it helps when you start with a story, like Orpheus, that we all know so well. But do we actually see the fullest version of the myth on stage? Not according to Wåhlberg. “The story is told in Book 10, and it's super short. The whole story (Eurydice, the wedding, she is bitten on the ankle by a snake, the Underworld, Orpheus tries to get her back, he turns around, she disappears) – it's like 80 lines. If you continue reading, there are loads of other things happening.” By re-examining the source material (mainly Ovid’s Metamorphoses), Orfeo Uncut sheds light on parts of the story that dismantle (or at least call into question) our picture-perfect Orpheus.

Orfeo Uncut
© Barokkfest Early Music Festival

The production’s finale looks to the 11th book in the Metamorphoses, where Orpheus is torn apart by the Thracian women, to flesh out one of several areas undersold by Orpheus operas historically. “The description of this violent scene is much longer than what is told in the previous book, which is what we usually make three-hour operas out of. This is long, it's detailed and it's extremely gory.” There’s more: in the previous scene, we hear Telemann’s Orpheus, one of the only operas from the time to deal with Orpheus turning away from women following his return from the Underworld.

Creating a musically satisfying production to suit the narrative required lots of preparation: Wåhlberg rifled through some 40 potential operas for inclusion. Orfeo Uncut uncovers musical eccentricities that usually go unheard – Belli’s perpetually miserable Orfeo dolente depicts a glum episode in the Underworld and the sweet, strange music of Landi bookends the sequences. But, building on the work of scholar Ellen Harris, it’s through the early music of George Frideric Handel that we begin to understand Orpheus in a genuinely revelatory new light.

Orpheus wasn’t always thought of as the faithful lover and dedicated husband we imagine today, as Wåhlberg explains. “The thing is, at the time, to mention Orpheus in itself actually alluded to homoeroticism, because of this little element in the Metamorphoses.” That allusion is to Ovid’s tenth book: “indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime and early flowering, this side of manhood.”

Handel never wrote an Orpheus opera, so Wåhlberg fuses the aria “Un pensiero nemico” from his oratorio Il Trionfo del tempo e del Disinganno with music from the cantata Non può mia musa from around the same time. Both feature libretti by patron and close friend Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, who had just taken the young composer under his wing. “It’s music by Handel, it's Handel setting text written to him. It's kind of autobiographical and it's very curious. In this text, Pamphili talks about Orpheus – you have to also understand this as a Catholic cardinal receiving this young and beautiful German man.”

Orfeo Uncut
© Barokkfest Early Music Festival

The production is also unafraid to cover the more controversial aspects of the Orpheus tale. Telemann’s setting, which describes Orpheus’ turn to pederasty after the loss of Eurydice, is one of the only works in the canon to do so in anything approaching a direct way. Wåhlberg is quick to dismiss any desire to shock, though. “Contemporary art already did that – through the past 120 years the whole idea of modern art was to shock. In my opinion, we have gone as far down that line as possible: you cannot do anything really shocking today.” Whilst it may not shock per se, the production isn’t short of visually arresting moments: neon paint, nudity and gory fury are most certainly on the menu.

The production is more conciliatory in outlook than some of the images may suggest, and that comes down to Wåhlberg’s measured approach to constructing the work. “What we really want is to show that this story is not as simple as we think. I think pre-modern culture is much more open than we think, and our morality is also very much a modern phenomenon, especially from Victorian times. If you look at ancient literature, there are fluctuations between all kinds of eroticism and sexuality. Today we label things and link identities to different kinds of sexualities, whereas that hasn't always been the case. You cannot just hide it away.” This new Orpheus production certainly doesn’t hide in the shadows: with powerful visuals, star vocalists and a lovingly selected collection of music, Orfeo Uncut makes for intriguing operatic prospect.

This article was sponsored by Barokkfest Early Music Festival.