Midway between its Viennese premiere and the Paris revision, Gluck distilled Orfeo ed Euridice, his most famous opera, into a 70-minute 'Readers’ Digest' edition and used it to cap a commissioned trilogy, Le feste d’Apollo. That was in 1769, a year that makes this particular version ripe for inclusion in ‘Mozart 250’, Ian Page's marathon project to track the life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus year by year until the 250th anniversary of his death in 1791.

Lena Belkina (Orfeo) and Rebecca Bottone (Amore)
© Benjamin Ealovega

Only 22 years to go, then. It’s unclear if Page will divvy out the spoils to other conductors or whether ‘Mozart 250’ will remain his personal project, but he always coaxes the most elegant playing from his house band, The Mozartists. This staged concert of the outer volets of Le feste d’Apollo was no exception... and yet there was so much more drama to be teased out of Gluck’s scores than we heard in these weightless, spick-and-span accounts. In the event it took the experience and stage presence of Kiandra Howarth to alchemise Page’s concert into true opera. The Australian soprano sang Euridice with such depth of character and invested her with so much physical conviction that we gained a glimpse of what might have been.

This Queen Elizabeth Hall semi-staging (director: John Wilkie; designers: Emily Adamson and Philly Noone) was simple yet slightly odd, with Page and his Mozartists sandwiched between two silver birch copses that gave both operas an improbable whiff of Russian realism. (Chekhov? Gorky? Really?) To the rear, backlit by a screen, was a raised passerelle; to the fore a quartet of warehouse stepladders. Utility tunics were the costume order of the day although Cupid (Rebecca Bottone) did sport a giant pair of Christian angel wings. Three dancers perambulated to little purpose.

Kiandra Howarth (Shepherdess) and Lena Belkina (Philemon)
© Benjamin Ealovega

Where the performance scored was in demonstrating the richness and variety of Gluck’s music for Orfeo ed Euridice. Even in this reduced form the writing marks a quantum leap away from opera seria and into a freer model that Mozart would later develop in his Da Ponte collaborations. Orfeo was proficiently sung by Lena Belkina, although not to the height of brilliance that her Grigolo-esque curtain call suggests she herself thought. Her diction was approximate and her engagement with the character never scratched far below the surface; indeed, the most curious moment of all occurred when she and Page tossed “Che farò senza Euridice” into the mix like a breathless afterthought.

Gwilym Bowen (Jupiter)
© Benjamin Ealovega

The evening had begun with a far slighter piece, Bauci e Filemone, in which the same three singers were joined by Gwilym Bowen as a flaxen-headed Giove. The still-youthful tenor is a fine Baroque singer whose voice has graced many a concert in recent years, but he was not at his most luminous here and his acting would have benefited from stronger direction. As for the opera, it is a little slice of nothing but was nonetheless interesting to hear. (Synopsis: Giove/Jupiter comes to earth and finds kindness in the welcome he receives from the eponymous couple. He blesses them and they live happily ever after. It lasts 50 minutes if you’re wondering.)

Belkina as Filemone was much like Belkina as Orfeo, despite the opera's different mood, while the resourceful Bottone negotiated some impossibly high notes in Bauci’s aria “Il mio pastor tu sei” and never missed her mark even though it was (understandably) more a matter of squeezing out the extreme tessitura than making it beautiful. Howarth had three exquisite minutes as La pastorella – a taste of things to come. The opera is dull fare in which no villains prowl – the nearest it gets to dramatic tension is a wind machine – but chapeau to the 14-strong Mozartists Choir for some sterling work putting the music’s generalised energy into focus.