Billed as a “concert hall staging”, the Academy of Ancient Music’s season-opening performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was brilliantly staged at the Barbican by the director Orpha Phelan and designer Caroline Hughes – as close as one could get to a full production in a concert hall without a pit. The orchestra took centre stage and a tiered stage was placed behind it for the cast and chorus (dressed in smart, modern party outfits), but they also made use of the whole stage including the front area and even the auditorium aisles. Although there was no set except for some chairs and props and, at one point, a dissecting table(!), it was beautifully lit, providing the atmosphere for each scene.

John Mark Ainsley and Sophie Bevan © AAM / Toby Chadd
John Mark Ainsley and Sophie Bevan
© AAM / Toby Chadd

Whereas many semi-staged opera performances take a rather abstract approach, this L’Orfeo was updated to a specific modern setting, which was made clear in the programme notes. The director explains: “I am imagining that Orfeo is the up-and-coming head of a clan. Euridice is from another clan and their marriage is an arranged one”. She further specifies that Acts I and II take place at a church wedding (rather than the original pastoral setting), Act III at the morgue, Act IV in a bar and Act V at the graveside. All supernatural elements of the opera are eliminated. Euridice is not killed by a serpent, but takes her own life because she is unhappy with the marriage. Orfeo doesn’t go down to Hades – the whole episode of fetching her from Hades is imagined by the remorseful Orfeo in his drunken state. Speranza (Hope) turns out to be a nurse and Caronte, the ferryman of Hades, becomes a pathologist.

I think on the whole, this updated narrative did work and was mostly a positive experience. In particular, I thought that the interpretation of Euridice being unhappy with the marriage and taking her own life was an interesting and valid one for our age, had it been explored more fully and clearly (not many people seemed to have noticed this). On the other hand, there was often a huge disparity between what was sung (the wonderful text by Striggio) and the action on the stage, and some of the magical moments of the opera were lost in the process. For example, the production didn’t provide the atmosphere for “Possente spirto” scene where Orfeo sings and charms ferryman Caronte to sleep in order to cross the river to Hades. Here, Orfeo’s song manages to stop the pathologist Caronte from dissecting Euridice’s dead body, but it failed to capture the magic of this scene, even though it was powerfully sung by John Mark Ainsley.

Anyway, enough about the staging, and onto the performance. Tenor John Mark Ainsley gave an epic and emotionally convincing performance in the title role, portraying a modern, very human Orfeo – anxious at his wedding, angry at the loss of his bride and drowning his sorrows in drink. 20 years since his first recording with Phillip Pickett, he obviously has this role under his skin, and he expressed every nuance of the text. Euridice has very little to sing in this opera and was mostly confined to the back of the stage, but Sophie Bevan made the most of her lines, with radiant singing. Mezzo Daniela Lehner as La Musica (a.k.a. Wedding Singer) and Speranza sang with charm, and Katherine Manley gave a stylish performance as a nymph (bridesmaid) and Proserpina. The other standout singing came from the fresh-voiced tenor Thomas Hobbs as the “Godfather” Apollo. In particular, his closing duet with Ainsley in the last act was very moving. Is Hobbs a future Orfeo in the making? The only disappointment in the cast was Caronte, sung by bass Paul Gerimon (not Nathan Berg as previously announced). It probably didn’t help that he had to sing in a pathologist’s suit while putting on rubber gloves, but he didn’t have the necessary heft in the low register. There were also excellent contributions in the minor characters from countertenor Christopher Lowrey and baritone Dawid Kimberg. The Choir of the AAM sung and acted brilliantly throughout.

The performance was directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, the Academy’s Music Director. He seemed very much one of the musicians, and lead the ensemble and chorus from within the rather than dominating and controlling every aspect of the music from above. As a result, the music-making had an unforced and organic feel. There were moments when I felt that the music could have done with a little more forward momentum, but Egarr and the orchestra, comprised of the cream of early music instrumentalists, did full justice to Monteverdi’s glorious score and brought out the colour and sonority, especially in the opening toccata and the instrumental sinfonias. Highest praise goes to the whole continuo section, led by the three keyboard players and the two large theorbos (chitarrones) who supported the singers throughout with wonderful harmony in various combination of instruments, including the harp and the deliciously reedy regal.

This season, the Academy of Ancient Music celebrates its 40th anniversary, and with this brilliantly staged L’Orfeo, they opened their season with a bang and showed that they are still one of the UK’s foremost early music ensembles.