Few legends have inspired artists more than the tale of Orpheus, the son of Apollo whose music so moved the gods that he was given permission to enter Hades to retrieve his deceased wife Eurydice... only to lose her again because he disobeyed the instruction not to look back. The Nederlandse Reisopera’s new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, co-produced with OPERA2DAY, shows that, even in the 21st century, this legend remains a source of inspiration to artists across varied disciplines. The brainchild of opera director Monique Wagemakers, choreographer Nanine Linning and visual artist Lonneke Gordijn, this Orfeo is a thing of infinite beauty.

<i>L'Orfeo</i> © Marco Borggreve
L'Orfeo
© Marco Borggreve

The beauty is at first visual. Above the stage floats Ego, the shape-shifting creation of Lonneke Gordijn from the Dutch art collective Studio DRIFT. A gigantic sculpture woven out of miles of nylon thread, it glistens in the half-shadows. More than just a set in the background, it is fully part of the performance. A representation of Orfeo’s mind, it looms high above the stage or comes down to embrace it as a veil. It moves to the music and changes shape from an angular, rectangular-shaped beam, to a flow of glittering fluid, to a sharp giant arrow. An ensemble consisting of ten singers and ten dancers from the Nanine Linning Dance Company occupies the stage at all times. They all move, crawl, dance as an ensemble in an intricate and dynamic choreography. They dance as one cluster, then disperse during brief solo performances, to aggregate again in what resembles an organic entity that pulsates to the vibration of the theorbos. This impression of one living organism is reinforced by their ribbed, flesh-coloured costumes by fashion designer Marlou Breuls. The visual spectacle is at all times mesmerising, its images quietly haunting.

Samuel Boden (Orfeo) © Marco Borggreve
Samuel Boden (Orfeo)
© Marco Borggreve

Surprisingly unrestricted by the intense physicality of their dance, the ten singers all gave fine vocal performances. With his flexible tenor and athletic posture, Samuel Boden proved a perfect fit for the role of Orfeo, offering unfailingly stylish singing in the midst of the demanding choreographed moves. His honeyed timbre and the way he audibly relished the text made the plaintive lyricism of the role most moving. Even more gut-wrenching perhaps was the performance of Luciana Mancini as La messagiera, the messenger burdened with the task of recounting the death of Euridice. The mezzo-soprano was just as convincing later, in Proserpina’s plea to her husband Pluto (Yannis François) for Orfeo’s doomed cause. Her rich, earthy timbre contrasted appealingly with Kristen Witmer’s bright and slender soprano as Euridice. Of the smaller roles, I particularly enjoyed the performance of bass Alex Rosen as Caronte (Charon), whose handsome dark timbre was accompanied by the ominous sound of the regale organ.

<i>L'Orfeo</i> © Marco Borggreve
L'Orfeo
© Marco Borggreve

While on stage, sets, costumes and lighting were all in subtle muted shades, the instrumentalists of La Sfera Armoniosa added magic from the pit, displaying a wide array of colours, far brighter than the muffled sound period ensembles often have the reputation of producing. Period strings emitted a warm glow, clarions and cornetts snorted audaciously, theorbos throbbed. The precise baton of conductor Hernán Schvartzman looked as if it was carving delicately into orchestral structures.