Set in the wonderful theatre upstairs at the Gatehouse pub in Highgate, Hampstead Garden Opera’s new production of L’Orfeo by Monteverdi contained some memorable images and richly resonant chorus passages. However, the plight of the opera’s mythical hero, Orpheus (here played by Edmund Hastings), and his quest to bring his wife Euridice (Natalie Perez), back from the dead, became somewhat muddled within the sparse setting and updating of the production. Nevertheless, this rendition of the classical myth had some interesting ideas and real musical strength in places, stemming from the orchestra – Musica Poetica – convincingly led from the harpsichord by Oliver-John Ruthven.

Natalie Perez as Euridice with the Spirits of Hades in L'Orfeo © Laurent Campagnon
Natalie Perez as Euridice with the Spirits of Hades in L'Orfeo
© Laurent Campagnon

The opening drones from the viols and harpsichords transported us instantly into a vivid and unfamiliar soundworld. There was a real rapport between the players that was delightful to behold. Indeed, it was a shame not to be able to see the instrumentalists performing on the pochettes – tiny violin-like instruments - whose distinctively reedy timbre emanated from behind the scenery. It was notable that the singers were always synchronised with the orchestra, seemingly without making direct eye contact with the conductor. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Yelland (playing Hope and Proserpina) had a particularly rich vocal tone, while Theresa Pells (playing the Messenger) delivered a dramatic and clearly articulated description of the scene of Eurydice’s tragic death.

The sonorous sound of the chorus was one of the musical highlights of the evening: the sforzandi crescendos in their lamentations for the loss of Euridice in the second half were extremely effective. In the programme notes, director Matthew Eberhardt draws our attention to these outbursts of “collective emotion”, and his meticulously choreographed ensemble sequences deserve mention here. These were some of the most vivid moments of the first half: intricately crafted dances which united the chorus in scenic constellations depicting prayer, rejoicing, and flower-gathering. Natalie Perez evoked elegant statue-like gestures in her role as “Music”, prior to becoming an equally graceful Eurydice. Hastings (Orfeo) and Perez made a handsome leading couple, and there were moments of chemistry between them – but the dramatic depiction of their courtship was unclear, and Orfeo seemed to be mourning from the start of the opera, which made his desolation at the discovery of his wife’s death less striking.

The absence of visual differentiation between characters divine and mortal was also problematic. It is possible that the fragmentary structure of Monteverdi’s 17th-century work is to blame for this; however, Rachel Szmukler’s elegant costumes – flowing skirts for the ladies and black suits for the men – did not aid our identification of individual characters (such as the Messenger and “Hope”), who emerged directly from the choruses of “countryfolk” and wedding guests. This lack of supernatural visual material could be attributed to Eberhardt’s aim of bringing the opera into the 21st century; however, this modernisation didn’t always help us to understand the plight of the heroes. The depiction of Hades as a graffiti-covered lair populated by leather-clad punks and topless men was also questionable. It effectively established the opposition between the innocence of Euridice and the corrupt nature of Hell, but when Pluto, played by Ian Helm with great stage presence, put down his copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to light a cigarette, Eberhardt’s dramatisation of the underworld came across as more of an attempt to be subversive, or contemporary, rather than to evoke a genuinely sinister depiction of hell. By downplaying the visual opposition between human and divine figures, the production appeared to be less in thrall to the irrevocable powers of Fate, Death and the Gods than the myth would imply, and there was very little to suggest a fatal struggle between these elemental forces.

There also seemed to be a lack of communication between Orfeo and Charon, the Ferryman, over the waters of Hades. When Orfeo implores Charon to let him pass and charms him to sleep with his singing, the dialogue between them should be full of tension, and we should sense that Charon is powerless before Orfeo’s music. Here, however, there was a crucial loss of dramatic momentum created by static staging. Nevertheless, Ben Pickersgill’s lighting made atmospheric use of the space, subtly evoking very different moods within this intimate venue. Lack of depth in the emotional characterisation of the solo roles meant that it was harder to sympathise with them as individuals, and to follow the development of the plot. By contrast, the chorus came across differently: they seemed to work well together and there was a genuine rapport between them. Despite these issues, this company of emerging artists has a great deal of potential, and the dynamic use of authentic Baroque instruments by Musica Poetica was an exciting and memorable contribution to the overall experience.